Sunday 28 September 2008

Berlin Eugen Onegin with Barenboim, Villazon, Pape: A pantomime with puppets

A clown among the clowns: Rolando Villazón with the chorus

Eugen Onegin. Premiere. Berlin State Opera, September 27th 2008. Director and sets: Achim Freyer. Cast: Roman Trekel (Eugene Onegin), Anna Samuil (Tatiana), Rolando Villazón (Lenski), Maria Gortsevskaya (Olga), René Pape (Gremin). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

“Freyer is boring” a man shouted from the first balcony towards the end of Act 1. Another loudly agreed with him, while several asked them to calm down. Daniel Barenboim looked entirely unfazed in the pit, waiting the 20 necessary seconds for them to quiet down and then continued the performance. Obviously such behaviour is unacceptable and disrespectful etc., but most of all it is hilarious. “It´s always like this at Berlin premieres, it´s sort of included in the ticket price” a lady told her rather shocked cousin from Essen in the bar. Exactly.

I have never seen an opera production quite like this one. Achim Freyer´s sets are exclusively black and white, with a completely naked stage except for some chairs as seen in the photographs below. Extensive production photographs may be seen here. All characters (except Gremin) are on stage for the duration of the opera and all are masked/dressed assembling clowns or pantomime figure including grotesque amounts of black/white face paint.

The choreography is very strict until the tiniest arm movement. Each character is allotted a stripe in the floor along which he/she perpetually moves slowly backwards and forwards. Just like a puppet show. All characters look straight forward with no facial expressions whatsoever and at no point did they look at each other.

The individual characters of Onegin, Lenski and Tatiana clearly do not matter here. They do not (inter)act like individuals, but puppets controlled by fate. Even after his death, Lenski continues pacing his allotted line - good news for Rolando Villazón fans, as he is on stage for three hours in a production centered around him. Robert Wilson´s abstract choreographies immediately comes to mind.

This dark, very restrictive puppet game of fate resonates rather well with both the Pusjkin-based storyline and Tchaikovski´s sumptuous music. The result: A rather beautiful and eery production leaving ample of space for Daniel Barenboim´s orchestra to shine.

However, one such production per theatre per season is enough, no matter how well-thought out and innovative the concept.

One would expect the singers to hate to participate in this production, however for some of the characters this strict choreography seems a strength, a fact Rolando Villazón has acknowledged in an interview prior to the premiere. He is one of the major benefactors, being forced to leave the often neurotic quality of his acting behind and express himself with his voice alone. In that respect he is extraordinary, and the clown setting obviously suits him well. He does have trouble hitting the high notes, if by hitting one understands "hitting on pitch", however his voice is so beautifully dark, that you´d almost believe him not to be a tenor (a compliment, obviously!).

Same applied to Gremin´s low notes, however that and the fact that he was made to look absolutetely ridiculous did not prevent house bass René Pape from being the best singer on stage by a considerable margin.

There is a slightly grained and wooden quality to Roman Trekel´s voice, and he was also audibly tired towards the end (who wouldn´t be with all that static arm-waving), but made a fine Onegin. Anna Samuil, also on the Salzburg Onegin DVD, repeated her beautifully sung Tatiana, though some may find her a bit monodimensional in both dramatic and vocal expression.

That Daniel Barenboim draws out the best of the Staatskapelle in a predictably rich-textured and dense reading is also no surprise for those familiar with him and/or his 2007 Salzburg Onegin. Curiously, he chose, as he did in Salzburg, to set an extraordinary slow tempo for the final scene, which almost took out all the intensity not present in Freyer´s production..

I don´t remember when a new production has not been booed at the Berlin State Opera – part of the game, I suppose. That the booing of Achim Freyer was somewhat louder than usual seems a minor point. After Achim Freyer´s initial solo bow, Daniel Barenboim (himself massively applauded) joined Freyer for his next solo bows, a rather nice way to show his support for the production, not that Freyer seemed to mind the boing, rather the contrary. After all, he has been a professional provocateur for at least 20 years. At the same time Rolando Villazón was jumping up and down, cheering wildly for Freyer in the background.

"A pantomime puppet game within loops of fate and black/white face paint" - how is that for a summary title?

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Roman Trekel: 4
Rolando Villazon: 4-5
Anna Samuil: 4
René Pape: 5
Maria Gortsevkaya: 4-5

Achim Freyer´s production: 4-5

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 5


Carol said...

Hi mostly! First, congratulations on the blog. I've been commenting as "Anonymous" before.
I was there yesterday. Never been to a premiere in Berlin before, so I was a bit surprised by the boos.
I liked the production, musically. Quite a lot. Baremboim, as always, in top shape with his "own" orchestra. Pape, as always, managing to steal all attention by a minimum time on stage. Great Triquet by Rügamer. Villazon and Samuil, also good surprises. The same doesnt really apply for Trekel's Onegin... a bit dull.
But I must agree with the Mr. who shouted "boring" from the balcony. Though visually stricking and beautiful, I found the whole choreography indeed tedious.
But an interesting evening nonetheless.

Kenderina said...

It looks like you liked it all :)
But seeing the photos I still think it is a bit too much for me !
I really prefer Rolando with his "neurotic" (I don't think it is !) acting and be able to recognize Pape would be a plus !

mostly opera... said...

"and be able to recognize Pape would be a plus !"

Well, not in this case. During the first two acts, a man clad in black kept popping up on stage. My companion (from Berlin) kept whispering "that is René Pape" and I kept replying "no it is not". Finally he whispered "I have seen René Pape on stage about 100 times, it is him. I´ll buy you a ticket for the Faust premiere if I am wrong".
Me: "I have a ticket for the Faust premiere, but you can buy me a ticket for the Lohengrin premiere".

So, now it seems like I have a free ticket for the Lohengrin, thanks to Achim Freyer´s face-paint. Not bad..

Kenderina said...

hahahaahaha, no, not bad at all..if lohengrin still travels on a swan in that production ;)

Unknown said...

I discovered your blog recently and thank you for your thoughtful reviews. I like Villazon a lot and although the production looks truly strange, as you pointed out, he may have restrained himself in service to the music. He's a fascinating man and a brilliant artist.

yvette said...

I have never been so eager to read about a premiere! thank you so much
indeed ,this is interesting and so
new ! It gives new insights in Poushkin long poem and in the music . I will be attending Oct the 12th performance .I saw there is a talk about the opera
after it, is there a special ticket for that or is it entrance free ?(Staatsoper site does not mention those details) . Thank you , this is great work !

curzon said...

Sounds utterly ghastly to me! Also exactly the same crap that Freyer ws doing in his awful "Freischutz" which propelled him to fame over 30 years ago. How are people like him and the equally barren Wilson allowed to get away with trotting out the same rubbish over and over again?


mostly opera... said...

"I saw there is a talk about the opera after it, is there a special ticket for that or is it entrance free ?"

I´ve never attended these things, but I believe they are entrance-free and held in the "room" at the level of the first balcony (forgot the name of it, but you cannot miss it)

marcillac said...

"'d almost believe him not to be a tenor (a compliment, obviously!)."


marcillac said...

Typically acute observations respecting the musical aspects (new, and very good Gremin though).

The productions was less annoying and distracting than I expected.

There is a point you touch but do not expand on (probably because you go to the SOUDL so frequently) but that does, I think deserve more attention: specifically, the extraordinary excellence of the Staatskapelle.

This was only my second time at the SOUDL although I have also heard the orchestra in superb Beethoven (including easily the best 9th I've ever heard - mit seiner Held als Bass, naturlich) and Schumann cycles in New York and have always been tremendously impressed. The Beethoven compared very well with some symphonies played by Abbado and the BPO the following year. The comparison was much more proximate and for that reason much more striking in this instance. We heard a superb BPO concert last night but with respect to the ditinctivnes of its color and style and even the refinement of its execution I actually found myself giving preference to the Staatskapelle. Further, I preferred the orchestral playing to that of the VPO on the Salzburg DVD. That the Staatskapelle is a great orchestra will surprise no one. That it holds its own, and even, imo, comes out on top in this sort of company was somewhat surprising.

That said, I heard last night's BPO program with the Chicago last spring, also conducted by Haitnik (who is also doing a superb and badly underrated Fidelio in Zurich right now) and, to be frank, the CSO suffers badly in the comparison. I've tended to find Barenboim at his worst in his work with them. I do wish Muti much luck there though.

Finally, it seems that the Staatskapelle's recordings do not do it justice. I had heard the aforementioned Beethoven cycle on CD and found it superb. Therefore, I was very much surprised how much better the orchestra sounded live.

mostly opera... said...

DB has top-tuned the Staatskapelle´s sound, particularly evident over the past 7-8 years. On top-form (ie. with DB conducting) they generate performances of an intensity unmatched by anyone. Including the BPO and Vienna Phil. It is more or less a fact and quite obvious for regular visitors, as you mention.

Agreed, I should probably write more on the Staatskapelle and in order to limit repetitive coverage I may have down-scaled their contribution.

However, the quality of the Staatskapelle is outrageously varying and when DB is not there the playing is mediocre, which is rather frustrating.

Needless to say, the Wagner performances are absolutely staggering (when DB is inspired). I have never heard Wagner performed as in this house, where I have heard everything except the Ring.

The Parsifal last season was astonishing, and the upcoming Parsifal´s this season will be the musical highlight of the entire 2008-9 Wagner season, no matter who sings (well, almost...).

Not to mention the Don Giovanni of last year. Simply the finest conducted performance of the work I have heard since the old Furtwängler records.

The Staatskapelle has not recorded that much, though the Tannhäuser is magnificent. I suppose, they are best captured live.

I have some reservations on Barenboim´s Beethoven symphonies, though my knowledge of the discography is not sufficient to write about publicly. On the other hand after Giulio Cesare I may write about anything, I suppose...

I agree, Christof Fischesser is VERY good, unfortunately too good to continue to be living in RP´s shadow..

marcillac said...

I'm sure DB will appreciate the Furtwangler comparison if he reads this.

About that Fidelio in Zurich: I've been in the there for work for a few weeks now and keep getting very good free tickets (front row) and have seen it twice and I must say that I do find myself intnsely at odds with the opinons of the reviewers. I'm certianly no expert but I have seen and heard a lot of opera and cannot understand what these critics have been watching and listening to. Realy excellnet pproduction with a superb cast top to bottom.

mostly opera... said...

I haven´t really followed this Fidelio, though I know Katharina Thalbach as director of a superb Hansel und Gretel from Dresden (plus she is on RP´s Mein Herz brennt album as well).

I´ve always found Haitink to be overrated, acutally. He was praised to the skies for his Parsifal in Zurich last year, which I found fine, but no more than that. On the other hand I recently heard him conduct Mozart where he was supberb.

In my experience German-language critics are very attached to Fidelio, and always come up with myriads of strange criticism, when that opera is involved, in my opinion. I´ll try and read some of it..

marcillac said...

The Zurich Fidelio certainly wasn't a "major" musical event of international significance but I've been there for several weeks, have come by a number of free tickets and have thoroughly enjoyed the performances which were good at the beginning but improved throughout the run. Having attended the performances I've read the reviews as well and find myself in dissent.

I generally agree with you about Haitnik's conducting but I have heard him to great work on a number of occasions, never moreso than here.

Thalbach's production is possibly the best that I've seen of the opera and I would certainly hope she gets a lot more work. The cast, as I say above,is very good and much better than one would gather from the reviews.

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