Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera

The Royal Opera House opted for Tchaikovsky’s romantic masterpiece,
Eugene Onegin, and in my view got it both right and wrong. They got it
right in that they managed to pack the house out even at full prices: could any
opera composed in the last fifty years have achieved as much? Full prices =
expensive: I paid £150 for what my ticket amusingly described as a “Tall
Loose Seat” at the back of the Grand Tier. I was sitting on a glorified
bar stool – one understands why they’re not called “Loose
Stools” of course –and could see only 90% of the stage.

But they got it wrong in that they drew out very few young, or even
youngish, couples on one of the great “date nights” of the year, a
night when a bit of extravagance is widely felt to be allowable. It would
certainly be an extravagance to most people, when a Valentine’s evening
of this description, with dinner and drinks, would likely cost £400 or more.
But there are plenty of young couples with a good deal of disposable income in
the London area: they just weren’t choosing to see Eugene Onegin. The
average age of the audience must have been on the less desirable side of 60.
The stalls were a sea of white, grey and silver hair scattered with islands of
exposed scalp. The overwhelming impression was that these were mostly moneyed,
retired couples out for a treat on their umpteenth Valentine’s Day
together and that they had long since done with holding hands and pursuing a
feeling of romantic intimacy in the face of great art.

I have nothing against older people enjoying opera and intend myself to
enjoy it for as long as I can. And it is admittedly often difficult to get
young people enthused about the art form. But things can only get worse if, as
I felt on 14 February, companies like the Royal Opera , seeing where the
economic winds are blowing, start marketing their product specifically toward
their older clientele. One of the first full-page ads in the Eugene
programme was for EstÈe Lauder’s Re-Nutriv, the
“Ultimate Lift Age-Correcting CrËme.”Kasper Holten’s
controversial production of the opera itself seemed just as aware of who was
likely to be reading the programmes.

The keynote of the new production, as most reviewers have noted, is memory.
As the programme explains, “Kasper Holten’s production focuses on
the power of memory, on how it shapes us and how we gain self-knowledge through
experience. The stage becomes increasingly full of objects symbolic for Tatyana
and Onegin as they grow up and finally realize that they can never return to
their past lives.” That’s oddly worded, and seems more a comment on
the general human condition than on the psychological intricacies of the
Pushkin-Tchaikovsky story, which is much more about the possibility or not of
having a second chance to go down a road not taken than about a desired return
to a “past life” (which “past life” are Onegin and
Tatyana wanting to return to, we should ask).

Adrian Mourby’s programme essay, “Stepping Through the Memory
Door,” more overtly attempts to link the opera to the general human
condition of getting older. He draws on Lockean ideas of personal identity as
constituted by memory, but gives them a depressingly bleak interpretation:
“we reach the end of our lives … as the sum total, not just of our
memories but of the mistakes we have made. As we go through life we accrete
more and more layers, and our decisions hem us in until we are trapped in a
present we never chose, unable to see the person we once had the potential to
be.”Who is he talking about here? The danger of “middle age,”
Mourby proceeds to moralise, is that an encounter “with someone who
shared our youth” can lead us to a delusive notion that we can break
free: “The curse of Friends Reunited that has blighted many modern
marriages is much more than an opportunity for consummating youthful
relationships in adulterous middle age; it is about the impact that people from
the past have on our younger selves, selves that have been all but lost under
the layers of mistakes and compromises down the years.” If anyone gets
round to writing an opera about Prince Charles and his two wives,
Mourby’s essay can be reprinted as a guide to some of the issues involved
in that unsavoury piece of royal history. But it is an odd commentary on the
story of Tchaikovsky’s teenage Tatyana, and one cannot help feeling that
Mourby is going much too far in trying to make Eugene Onegin
artificially RELEVANT to ROH’s aging patrons who are, ipso facto,
stereotyped as romantically unfulfilled.

I’ll come to the question of whether these ideas are actually
represented in Holten’s production in a moment. First, it is worth making
a comparison between the view of life set out here and that expressed so
successfully in Mamma Mia!, the very popular musical playing year
after year not far from the Royal Opera House. Mamma Mia!
unquestionablyis about middle-aged people, and it unquestionably attracts a
much younger audience. In fact, it’s a safe bet that a lot more
hand-holding was going on there on 14 February. I don’t believe this is
simply a matter of cost. Mamma Mia!, written by a single mother, is about
mistakes and misunderstandings, and it is about losing touch with younger
selves, but it is also about the power of love to overcome these things and the
human potential for renewal. This is what young people want to believe in, and
good for them. They know, of course, that not every love story ends happily,
but even the tragic ones have something to say about how wonderful love is,
something to teach about the value of getting it right, and I simply cannot
imagine happy young couples subscribing to the very cynical Everyman
interpretation of Eugene Onegin offered by Mourby – especially on
Valentine’s Day!

The really distinctive feature of Holten’s production, as all the
critics have noted, is that he introduces younger versions of Tatyana and
Onegin as mime roles. The critical reaction to this has been almost uniformly
negative: the addition of new “characters” has been judged as
either confusing the story or adding an unwanted and unnecessary layer of
psychological “interpretation.” But I have not read any discussion
of how this device alters the audience’s relationship to the story. Yet
alter it it surely does, for by introducing young versions of characters
normally imagined as young anyway, the production inevitably makes the singing
Tatyana and Onegin seem much older. The casting of Krassimira Stoyanova and
Simon Keenlyside as the two protagonists reinforced this impression: neither,
to put it bluntly, looked like a young lover. Mourby’s essay, whatever
its relevance to Tchaikovsky’s opera, is relevant to this production.

In Holten’s production, Tatyana and Onegin spend a good deal of time
looking at their own younger selves; in fact in key scenes, like the writing of
Tatyana’s letter and the fighting of the duel, it is the younger selves
who actually perform the actions. These younger selves, performed by Vigdis
Hentze Olsen and Thom Rackett, both of whom have a background in dance, were
certainly very much worth looking at, especially Olsen, with her beautiful,
sinuous and expressive form doing full justice to some intense choreography.
She could easily have passed for Stoyanova’s daughter, and surely
prompted many audience reflections on the vulnerability of beauty to time, with
or without “Age-Correcting CrËme.” The net result was that an
audience of people with an average age of about 60 were looking at protagonists
who appeared to be about 40, who were in turn looking at younger versions of
themselves who appeared to be about 20: a sort of theatrical variation on the
Droste effect. There was something decidedly retrospective and distancing about
this, with youthful passion being mediated to an older audience who might have
plenty of money but are nevertheless, in Mourby’s assessment, trapped on
the wrong side of a mid-life crisis.

By the end of the opera the younger selves had been put away for all
practical purposes. After her rejection by Onegin, the younger Tatyana
retreated into a hollow place in one of the three pillars that bestrode the
stage, where she remained visible through the ball scene (it had previously
been unclear why two of the three had these hollow compartments). It was the
kind of thing Virginia Woolf might have imagined for one of her female
characters, and appeared to represent a sort of grave for the younger, truer
self. I found it the most visually arresting moment in the production, and one
that summed up what Holten was doing with the story. This Eugene Onegin is not
so much about youth as about mid-life crisis, not so much about the thrill of
living and feeling as about death in life,not so much about love as about
troubling memories of it from long ago.

Any production of a classic opera that makes us think about it anew is to be
welcomed, and I found much of interest in Holten’s Eugene
. But, as one lady indignantly announced in the cloakroom
afterwards, “it’s not THE opera [Tchaikovsky imagined],” and
it seemed, at least in the context of Valentine’s Day, to be too
obviously pitched to an aging audience stereotyped as unfulfilled and no longer
able to engage directly with youthful passion. Much as I prefer
Tchaikovsky’s music to ABBA’s, if I was young and in love I’d
much rather have had a pair of tickets for Mamma Mia! on 14

David Chandler

Cast and production information

Tatyana: Krassimira Stoyanova; young Tatyana: Vigdis Hentze Olsen;
Eugene Onegin: Simon Keenlyside; young Onegin: Thom Rackett; Lensky: Pavol
Breslik; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Peter Rose; Madame Larina: Diana
Montague; Monsieur Triquet: Christophe Mortagne; Filipyevna: Kathleen
Wilkinson; Zaretsky: Jihoon Kim; Captain: Michel de Souza; conductor: Robin
Ticciati; director: Kasper Holten; set designs: Mia Stensgaard; costume
designs: Katrina Lindsay; lighting design: Leo Warner. Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden, 14 February 2013.

image_description=A. S. Pushkin
product_title=Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera
product_by=A review by David Chandler
product_id=Above: A. S. Pushkin