Decidedly, the world of opera in Argentina is falling prey to the dominating trend of recent decades in Europe: the utter tergiversation of the true contents of the chosen work, "justified" by a desire to be original and "creative". As the great producers of yore demonstrated –people like Wieland Wagner, Rennert, Pöttgen, Visconti, the early Zeffirelli, Colin Graham- it is possible to be innovative and fresh without attacking the essentials.
La Plata´s Teatro Argentino has begun a very ambitious season with the local premiere of Tchaikovsky´s "Eugen Onegin", only the second Russian opera the city has seen (the first, last year´s "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" by Shostakovich). An excellent idea, no doubt, but thoroughly ruined by Polish producer Michal Znaniecki (also costume designer). Other members of the production team: Swiss stage designer Luigi Scoglio, Polish lighting designer Bogumil Palewicz and Argentine choreographer Diana Theocharidis. Following another trend than is being carried too far, it was a co-production with the Polish Cracow and Poznan Wielki Operas and the Bilbao Opera (Abao Olbe).
I have been unhappy in recent years about the productions of "Onegin" I saw in Vienna and Paris, and I have shared my views with Herald readers. The La Plata one I would rank less negative than Vienna´s but worse than the Paris Bastille´s. Superficially some of it is aesthetically beautiful, but basic conceptual errors promptly pile up. As you may remember, we are in the ultra-Romantic Russian world of Pushkin as faithfully translated into immensely sensitive music by Tchaikovsky. The writer created "Onegin" as a novel written in verse between 1823 and 1831. We are in the ambience of rural aristocracy, made of sentimental nuances. In this version incongruity soon takes over, and grossness replaces subtlety.
Act I, First Tableau: bare birch trunks (the quintessential Russian tree) dominate and are surrounded by three big mirrors and other reflecting surfaces; clever lighting dapples the stage (it looks like the Venetian producer Beni Montresor´s effects). Nice to see, but it´s a wood, not a garden as required. However, the real problems start with the Second Tableau, Tatyana´s room, where her bed is surrounded by the birch trees and she writes in her bed in the time of inkwells…But disaster strikes in the Third Tableau, when Onegin visits Tatyana in her bed, and not in the garden: if the content were a seduction, it might work, but it´s a refusal! And who gave him access in those severe times?
Act II, First Tableau: The angular, contemporary choreography is completely alien to Tchaikovsky´s dances; the billiard table, uncalled-for and a silly barrier; the handling of the part of Monsieur Triquet, tremendously tasteless (a gallant old fop of the Ancien Régime converted into a very public libidinous dirty old man pawing Tatyana, and no one reacts). All conspires against creating the right climate of Madame Larina´s salon. Second Tableau: after a Lensky aria in front of a neuter drop, we see the habitual snowy landscape; an interesting and valid point: Lensky doesn´t even aim at Onegin, he wants to die.
Act III, First Tableau: the water in this article´s title comes from the ridiculous metaphor: Onegin´s icy demeanor melts down due to his new-found love for Tatyana, so the great salon in Prince Gremin´s St. Petersburg Palace has a palm of water and everyone splashes around. Furthermore, Gremin is made a cripple in a wheelchair, undermining the verisimilitude of his marriage to Tatyana. The Polonaise is again angular and charmless; it is danced behind a veil giving a phantasmagoric feeling which in a sense is adequate for the troubled feelings of the protagonist. Final scene: Tatyana strips down to a petticoat and receives thus the desperate Onegin, both still splashing.
The costumes were quite uneven, some of them attractive and others looking coarse and Las Vegas-ish. The final impression was that of a failed "Onegin" stagewise, despite occasional felicities. As an exercise in nostalgia, I remembered the beautiful production by Oscar Figueroa and Hugo De Ana presented at the Colón in 1977 and that of the Moscow Bolshoi I saw in 1967.
The musical side was rather good. Both principal singers are Polish and made their local debut. Baritone Marcin Bronikowski looks right for the part and has a strong, steady voice which he uses well, though without the plangency needed for the last act. Magdalena Nowacka looks attractive and has a sweet lyric timbre; she sings with musicality but lacks the intensity for the crucial Letter Scene. Our tenor Darío Schmunck was an involved and tender Lensky, particularly good in his aria, though with his habitual shortness of volume. Mezzo Mónica Sardi has the beauty of face and figure for the frivolous Olga, and she sang clearly, more assertively than I have heard her in other parts. There are two older women among the characters, Madame Larina and Filipyeva the nanny; they were well taken by Susanna Moncayo and Elsabeth Canis, the former very sonorous and the latter more restrained. Ariel Cazes did a correct Gremin, with little expansion however. I suppose Carlos Bengolea isn´t to blame for the grotesque characterisation of Triquet; the current condition of his voice is right for the part. Oreste Chlopecki and Sergio Spina completed the cast adequately.
Stefan Lano conducted with his great professionalism, although Tchaikovsky´s world isn´t particularly congenial to him; the orchestra and chorus (Miguel Martínez) responded well.