Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Partial To Russian Opera

My first “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera was on December 28, 1992.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day that year, my parents had taken my brothers and me to New York, where we caught performances of “The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet and “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera.

In advance of the “Eugene Onegin” performance, my parents had informed my brothers and me that we were free to declare, at the end of each act, whether we wanted to remain at the performance. My brothers and I had no trouble sitting through the entire opera.

The December 28, 1992, performance was the penultimate presentation of the 1957 Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”. The production was to be retired—at the conclusion of thirty-five years of service—after its final presentation three days later, on New Year’s Eve.

Rolf Gérard had been the designer for the 1957 “Eugene Onegin”. The original stage director had been Peter Brook.

At the 1992 performance we attended, we heard Ljuba Kazarnovskaya (Tatiana), Dwayne Croft (Onegin) and Jerry Hadley (Lensky). James Levine was conductor.

My grandparents had witnessed the same production in 1958, when the Metropolitan Opera’s annual tour had included a performance of “Eugene Onegin” in Minneapolis.

My parents and my grandmother attended the same production in 1980, when the Met once again toured “Eugene Onegin” to Minneapolis—and my parents caught the production a further time in 1985, when the Met brought “Eugene Onegin” to Minneapolis for the production’s final Twin Cities appearance.


My second “Eugene Onegin” at the Met was on February 23, 2002.

We caught a performance that year during a family gathering in New York. I had flown in from Vienna, my older brother had flown in from London, my middle brother had flown in from Denver, and my parents had flown in from the Twin Cities. (At the time, it was easier for us to gather in New York for quick visits than anywhere else.)

2002 was our first encounter with the 1997 Robert Carsen production of “Eugene Onegin”.

At the 2002 performance, we heard Solveig Kringelborn (Tatiana), Thomas Hampson (Onegin) and Marcello Giordani (Lensky). Vladimir Jurowski was conductor.


My third “Eugene Onegin” at the Met was on February 18, 2009.

That year, my parents and Joshua and I had met in New York over Presidents’ Day Weekend—my parents had flown in from the Twin Cities while Josh and I had driven down from Boston—and we had elected to hear “Eugene Onegin” at the Met that weekend rather than Puccini’s “La Rondine” (it was not an easy decision for us, as I recall).

We witnessed, once again, the Carsen production.

At the 2009 performance, we heard Karita Mattila (Tatiana), Thomas Hampson (Onegin) and Piotr Beczala (Lensky). Jiří Bělohlávek was conductor.


“Eugene Onegin” is the only opera I have heard at the Met as many as four times.

The “Eugene Onegin” we attended ten days ago was the first Met performance Josh had attended in which Karita Mattila had NOT been the featured soprano (in succession, we had heard Mattila at the Met in “Jenufa”, “Salome”, “Manon Lescaut” and “Eugene Onegin”). Indeed, poor Josh had taken to calling the Met “The Karita Mattila Opera Company”.

We shall return to New York in February to attend the Met’s new production of Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor”.

Happily, we are all very partial to Russian opera.

Because there are no opportunities to hear Russian opera in the Twin Cities, we often make a point of catching Russian opera elsewhere whenever and wherever we may (such as Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina”, which we caught in January in Paris).


Next month, we intend to catch Richard Strauss’s “Arabella” at Minnesota Opera and Bedřich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” at University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre.

However, we have been known, as performance dates approach, to scratch things off our calendars. Nonetheless, I very much doubt we shall skip “Arabella”: Strauss operas are not often staged in the Twin Cities (nor Smetana operas, for that matter).


  1. I am happy that you will see "Prince Igor" next year. From a purely musical standpoint, this opera is my favorite by a Russian composer. It is, to my ear, aside from Mussorgsky's operas, THE quintessential "Russian" opera.

    "Prince Igor" is SO great that I think that the work should never be staged, as some great ballets should never be staged, The experience of it should be limited to concert venues. The music is so incredibly, beautifully idiomatic that any stage presentation, however apt, would only occasion for the audience a distraction from the score.

    I hope the Met production eschews the Pavel Karmanov butcher-job of the work which I saw last June. I was outraged to see the khan's principal Act I aria yanked from the performance, along with other (literal) fistfuls of pages from the prologue - even from the overture. What a shame!

  2. I had to do an online search to see what you were talking about.

    I just read, in English, an article on the Bolshoi website about Karmanov’s tinkering with the Borodin score—which, he claims, was requested by the stage director of the new Bolshoi “Prince Igor”.

    I would be keen to hear more about the production as well as Karmanov’s version of the score (which appears to have been cut to shreds).

    The Bolshoi website states that “Prince Igor” has been performed over 1000 times at the Bolshoi. I had had no idea that “Prince Igor” was that popular in Russia.

  3. It was a very sad experience last summer. Since its premiere in 1890 "Prince Igor" has always been presented as an "Opera in Four Acts with Prologue." Stage director Yuri Lyubinov and "Editor" Karmanov have butchered it down to just two Acts, cutting out almost an entire hour of glorious music.

    Karmanov cut three-quarters of the overture, slicing some of that jettisoned torso into pieces and redistributing them into the truncated Prologue, which served as Act One, Scene One.

    In the original Prologue the royal protagonist leads his army out of the Russian city to meet the Polovtsy army. In this sorry version the Polovtsy actually invade the city before the Russians have any chance to do just that; the enemy attacks literally from the SKY, dropping down onto the stage as if from overhead dirigibles.

    That way, you see, there is no need to have two separate sets for Putivl and the Polovtsy encampment(s). Traditionally, the two inner Acts take place in the encampments, while Act I and Act IV take place in Putivl. It has become fashionable in recent years, however, to flip-flop Acts One and Two, alternating then between the two sets.

    The set designs were of the minimalist persuasion. The only stage furniture I could discern was a couple of oxcarts standing upright in Scene One and then overturned after the "paratroopers" enter. A silhouette of a Russian Orthodox cross and a giant red sun supplied the only real "scenery."

    The stage production looked like something put together for an American high school musical.

    Worst of all were the costumes. Some performers appeared in period dress, while others wore modern clothes. Most of the production budget must have been dedicated to the Polovtsy costumes, which were very attractive and colorful but very confusing because there was no stylistic continuity from person to person. Some of these looked like Parisian-designed American Indians, while one in particular looked like an extra from a (bad) science fiction movie: "The Attack of the Mongol-Pirate Aliens from Outer Space." (Did I descry a pre-war German dirigible pilot in the mix?)

    All the principal singers, with the exception of Yaroslavna, were clothed in offensive (and insulting) period/modern-mix costumes. Vladimir Galitsy wore what appeared to be an ugly grey (woman's) raincoat over a dirty, button-up shirt. Konchak (the Polovtsy khan) looked like a hillbilly naval officer with a yellow (woman's) raincoat and a Davy Crocket wolverine hat. Neither of those two singers wore any makeup that distinguished his character's race. In fact, the two of them looked as if they had been performing the roles of Valljean and Javert in "Les Miserables" and had accidentally wandered into the wrong theater: Thank God they knew their right lines.

    Some of the singing was good. I liked Valery Gilmanov's Konchik, in spite of his ridiculous look. The orchestra was in better form and actually sounded beautiful in some passages.

    Yes, "Prince Igor" IS very popular in Russia. This Lyubinov mess made the older members of the audience, including myself, rather angry, while the younger patrons seemed largely clueless.

    I hope TAW reviews the production.

    . .

  4. I can’t imagine chopping away at the Overture—better to omit it entirely, I would think.

    Did critics express outrage over the butchering of the score? It would seem to me that Russians, very traditional, would not want to see a national treasure mangled.

    I saw photographs of the production on the Bolshoi website. From the photographs, the production looked cheap (in addition to looking stupid).

    It will be interesting to see what the Met makes of “Prince Igor”. I always expect the worst in order not to be too disappointed.

  5. It certainly was stupid. Some of the critics DID complain - the older ones, at least.

    I have a theory why such a thing happened, though I can't prove it. I noticed quite a number of empty seats after the intermission between the two Acts. The real glory of the Bolshoi are the ballets. The ballets have always been the real "bread and butter" of earnings for the Company. And, not surprisingly, the Bolshoi Ballet ALWAYS delivers, as they did in the spectacular dance numbers closing Act I.

    The main reason for companies switching Act I and Act II (in the standard format), I feel, is to pay off the ballet-lovers in the audience early on, so that these don't have to wait through the "boring parts" of Act II in order to see the Polovtsy Dances. Then, they can leave. Management, of course, couldn't care less because a ticket sale is a ticket sale: "good riddance."

    In the Lyubinov mess this marketing strategy is enhanced. In an uncut performance the closing dances of Act I arrive about two hours after the start. In Lyubinov's version one has only to wait 80 minutes or so.

    Again, I can't prove it, but this seems reasonable.

    I "googled" the upcoming Met production, by the way. They will use two contrasting sets to represent the city and the army camps; so I don't think you have to worry about losing any music. A standard performance will run just short of 200 minutes, minus intermissions, of course. The Lyubinov version ended after about 141 minutes. The "payoff" comes early these days in Moscow.

    (Yes, the Polovtsy Dances were spectacular, but they annoyed me because there was too much whip-cracking and whistling on stage, in addition to the unavoidable foot noises. This is one reason why I would rather attend a concert version of the work: the music is too wonderful to be muffled.)

    In New York the Polovtsy camps will be set in a field of red poppies, I understand. Let's hope the Good Witch of the North doesn't show up.

  6. I suspect your theory is correct.

    I hold out no hope whatsoever about the upcoming Met production. However, “Prince Igor” does not come around often, so we had better hear it while we may.

    I do not believe “Prince Igor” is good box office in the West. Haitink did a production at Covent Garden in the 1990s, and I do not believe it was ever revived (but I would be happy to be corrected).

  7. I don't understand why the opera doesn't sell in the West. I was in love with the piece long before I knew anything about Russia or its language.

    One correction, though, from my last comment: In an uncut performance Act I will end after about 90 minutes. In the Lyubinov version Act I was over in less than an hour.