A new Yevgeny Onegin in Zagreb — Prince Gremin’s Fabulous Pool Party

Certainly inspired opera directors such as Giorgio Strehler or Jean-Pierre
Ponnelle could add impressive psychological and visual insight into much of the
standard operatic repertoire. But when far less gifted directors, usually with
a background in theatre or film rather than music, decide to impose their
idiosyncratic, self-serving and often gratuitously gimmicky interpretations on
an undeserving libretto, the results are usually either embarrassing (Christoph
Schlingensief) or downright offensive (Hans Neuenfels). Polish director Micha?
Znaniecki falls somewhere between the two.

Based on the premise that Alexander Pushkin’s complex character of Yevgeny
Onegin undergoes a complete transformation after killing his friend Lensky in a
duel and then through the realization that he has fallen hopelessly in love
with the once rejected Tatyana, Mr Znaniecki uses the metaphor of melting ice.
Given the grim bleakness of the Russian climate, there is nothing too
objectionable about that. The problem is that the icy stylized birch
forest/cage of Act I starts melting in Act II and by Act III, the majority of
the stage is covered with so much water it turns into a very large wading pond.
Either there are serious leakage problems with the roof of Prince Gremin’s
palace in St Petersburg or he has changed from being an army general to a
Imperial navy admiral who enjoys the sound of waves lapping in his own

Mr. Znaniecki also designed the costumes, which were much more successful
although one suspects he must own shares in the local Zagreb dry-cleaners as
every character in Act III, from dancers to chorus to principal protagonists
ends up so completely drenched that huge scale costume cleaning on a nightly
basis must be required. Definitely a wardrobe department’s ultimate
nightmare. Only Prince Gremin escapes soggy trouser legs and wet socks by being
confined to a wheel chair, which on the other hand severely limits the dramatic
opportunities for movement during his splendid aria.

The dancers clearly had problems during the opening Act III polonaise and
subsequent ecossaise due to the slippery floor lying below several centimeters
of water. Flippers or synchronized swimming might have been a better option.

Another novelty was that although Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky stipulated that
the opera was in seven scenes, Mr Znaniecki preferred only six. Act I Sc. ii
set in Tatyana’s bedroom also becomes Act I Sc. iii enabling the local
peasant maidens to traipse about their mistress’ boudoir as well as allowing
Onegin, a total stranger, to wander in and sit quite nonchalantly on her bed.

Even by the usual standards of loose bucolic morals, such a liberty would
never have been countenanced in 1820s aristocratic Russian society. At first it
seemed as though Tatyana was dreaming Onegin’s reply to her garrulous letter
(not a bad idea at all) but as subsequent stage direction proved, this was not
the case.

The introduction of a very prominent pool (that word again) table in Madame
Larina’s ballroom at the opening of Act II was another production quirk.
Triquet climbs onto it to deliver his name-day encomium to Tatyana and also has
her dragged up to join him. At the end of the fawning couplets, he proceeds to
grope her. Hardly correct social decorum befitting an aristocratic soirÈe.

The billiard cues provide props for the initial confrontation between Onegin
and Lensky. It all seems a bit gimmicky and the pool table severely limits the
space available for dancers and chorus (which was consistently impressive)
during the opening waltz and mazurka.

The only truly convincing production idea was in Act III when the chorus of
Prince Gremin’s vapid socialite guests stand behind a clear plastic scrim
menacingly beckoning Onegin, who is on the other side, to join their
superficial flashy-splashy world. Maybe he would prefer to change into a
wet-suit first.

Mr Znaniecki staged a very similar watery production of Yevgeny
in Bilbao in 2011 for which he was awarded the Premios
Foundation Teatro Campoamor LÌricos
for the best new production in Spain.
One shudders to contemplate what the other productions must have been like. Two
performances on 18th and 20th November were heard for the
most part with alternating casts.

Of the recurring interpreters the Larina of éelika Marti? was vocally
competent but rather vulgar in characterization (although a rural landowner she
is cousin to a princess in St Petersburg, so is hardly a bumpkin). Jelena
Kordi? sang a suitably perky and coquettish Olga without displaying any
outstanding mezzo soprano qualities.

The Lensky of Domagoj Doroti? was somewhat variable but on the whole quite
impressive, especially at the second performance. Unfortunately his Act I
arioso declaring his passionate love to Olga was both vocally
tentative and dramatically distant without any sense of ardor at all. He could
have been reading the weather report from Rostov. On the other hand, Lensky’s
celebrated Act II aria ‘Kuda, kuda’ was sung with sensitivity,
elegant legato, commendable mezzavoce and a finely controlled
piano. Doroti? also displayed a surprising ringing upper register
tone on the G# at measure 102 and on the Ab in the andante
change at 111. It was no surprise that at both performances he
received the loudest applause from the audience. Different singers sang the
other roles.

The Filipjevna of Jelena Kordi? was more successful in chest notes and
projection than Branka Sekuli? ?opo. It’s a shame her short scena
before Tatyana’s Letter aria was delivered at the front of the stage in
virtual darkness.

Although both tended to drag the tempo, Ladislav Vrgo? was vocally a more
secure Triquet than Mario Bokun and the Prince Gremin of Ivica ?ikeö far more
impressive than Luciano Batini?. Mr ?ikeö has a truly powerful and resonant
bass voice with admirable diction and projection. It was all the more
surprising that his Bb at measure 38 on ‘???????
(and again during the da capo at 130) was alarmingly below pitch.

The Tatyana of Valentina Fija?ko, although a tad matronly, was more
successful than Adela Golac Rilovi?. Neither interpreter of the role was
exactly outstanding although Miss Fija?ko managed the pivotal Letter scene
relatively well, especially pleasing with her word colouring of ‘whispered
words of hope’ (????? ??????? ??? ??????). Both
sopranos seemed to have problems with the F natural opening of the wistful
Db major theme at measures 195 and 211 and resorted to slight upward
sliding to find the note. One certainly misses the effortless cantilena of
Mirella Freni, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Anna Samuil or even Kiri te Kanawa at such

In the title role shared by Ljubmir Puökari? and Robert Kolar, the latter
was vocally and dramatically more convincing, but neither performance could be
described as really memorable. The legato phrasing of both baritones was often
lacking although the more declamatory passages were usually better sung.
Interestingly neither braved the optional high piano F natural at the
end of Onegin’s Act I aria which Peter Mattei’s performance of the role in
Salzburg in 2007 made so affecting. It is also musically a much more
satisfactory way of concluding the scena.

The real delight of these performances however was the conducting of veteran
Croatian maestro Niköa Bareza. This is a conductor who has directed inter
, Gˆtterd‰mmerung, Fidelio, Tosca, Il
and Andrea Chenier at La Scala and whose impressive
credentials include the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Hamburg Staatsoper, the
Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, and the Kirov Theatre in St. Petersburg. He
also speaks fluent Russian, which was of immense help in supporting the singers
in a Tchaikovsky opera – not to mention the fact that this was also the
6th production of the work he has led.

Similar to Wagner and Richard Strauss the orchestration in Yevgeny
plays an absolutely paramount role. Part instrumental Greek chorus,
part musical mirroring of the characters’ innermost thoughts and motivations
and part reflection of the composer’s own angst and conflicting emotions at
the time, this is a partitura so full of constantly shifting shadings,
subtle rubati and emphatic rhythms, kaleidoscopic harmonics and minute
inflections it covers every possible facet of orchestral expression. La
tristesse Russe
permeates almost every page of the score.

From the rousing brilliance of the Act III polonaise to the tender
melancholy of the clarinet obbligato in Lensky’s aria, the plaintive violin
phrases during Gremin’s aria, and the explosive fortissimo in the short
orchestral passage towards the end of Tatyana’s letter scena (bars
270-293), maestro Bareza’s command of every nuance of this exceedingly
complex score was unequivocally masterful.

Bareza: dix points, Znaniecki: zero.

Jonathan Sutherland

Cast and production information:

Conductor: Niköa Bareza. Direction and Costume Design: Micha?
Znaniecki. Set Design: Luigi Scoglio. Choreography: Diana Theocharidou. Larina:
éelja Marti?. Tatyana: Valentina Fija?ko/Adela Golac Rilovi?. Olga: Jelena
Kordi?. Filipjevna: Branka Sekuli? ?opo/ Neda Marti?. Yevgeny Onegin:
Ljubmir Puökari? /Robert Kolar. Vladimir Lensky: Domagoj Doroti?. Prince
Gremin: Ivica ?ikeö/Luciano Batini?. Triquet: Ladislav Vrgo? /Mario Bokun.
Photo credits: Mara Bratoö courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre Zagreb.
Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb, 18th & 20th
November 2014.

image_description=Martina Menegoni and Stjepan Franetovic?
product_title=A new Yevgeny Oneginin Zagreb — Prince Gremin’s Fabulous Pool Party
product_by=A review by Jonathan Sutherland
product_id=Above: Martina Menegoni and Stjepan Franetovic?