Despite its theme of supercilious youth and squandered love, Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin occupies as conventional a place in Russia’s literary canon as Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera does in its musical landscape. Livening up the operatic adaptation is a difficult task, one that too often overwhelms those who attempt it. The Vienna State Opera’s current production, by Katrin Hoffmann, falls into this category. Here the action is improbably updated to the lighter side of the 1950s, a cultural milieu that can only with much imagination accommodate an army of happy serfs, chaste confessions of love, and duels to the death to defend one’s honor. But here we have it, complete with housewifey period costumes and early rock-n-roll dances not uncredibly choreographed to the composer’s waltz, cotillion, and (abbreviated) écossaise. Only the famous polonaise, which has no satisfactory staging in any currently running production of which I am aware (at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater – hearth of Russian opera – it is disappointingly played before a closed curtain), escapes the cliché, only to appear as a kind of somber march followed by the black-tied aristocratic guests of Act III’s ball. Some touches are overdone. Acts I and II are set against a constant snowstorm that distracts from the action. Russia is cold, and so is the young Onegin’s heart, but did my lovely guest for the evening need to risk a motion-induced headache to grasp that? The Larin home (or at least Tatiana’s bedroom) is encased in bluish blocks of ice. Her birthday party – a surprisingly bawdy one for a teenaged daughter of the nobility, however provincial – is focused on what would today (not in the 1950s, for they did not exist then) be called an ice bar. Placing the production’s only intermission after Act II imposed an interminable sit and left the drama unbalanced.
The production’s incongruities wore off on the cast. Dmitrii Hvorostovsky and Olga Guryakova went through the motions as Onegin and Tatiana in the first two acts. Guryakova performs this most Russian of soprano roles widely, but I have never appreciated her voice’s throaty quality, which deprives the character of her wistful youth and leaves us with an unenchanting nerd. Hvorostovsky sang respectably, though with a curious lack of power in the first part of the evening. It was only in the final scene, when Onegin recognizes his love for Tatiana just to have her spurn him, that they radiated real passion. Indeed, this might have been the most dramatically moving performance of the scene I have ever witnessed. It is too bad the principals did not electrify us with that chemistry before then, for the performance would have benefited immensely. Pavol Breslik’s weak Lensky failed to inspire much sympathy, though he gave a reasonable account of his pre-death aria “Kuda, kuda, vy udalilis’?” But I still repaired to my nearby hotel suite during the only intermission thinking the character’s death was pretty much his own fault for whining so much around the more stolid Hvorostovsky’s title character.
A performance of Eugene Onegin can hardly be called a success when the greatest applause goes to the bass who performs for about seven minutes as Tatiana’s husband, the aged Prince Gremin. Yet it was the talented Ferruccio Furlanetto whose expansive charcoal voice received the evening’s greatest recognition. His Russian was imperfect, but his stentorian delivery of the Act III set piece aria “Liubvi vse vozrosti pokorni” stood as the most impressive vocal highlight. Kirill Petrenko’s uneven conducting tended to be sluggish in moments of high drama and too fast in the dances and dialogues. Over post-performance Wienerschnitzel and Fassbier, I found myself wanting to hear German music at the stately Staatsoper.