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Russian Repertoire at the Vienna Opera



Production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in Vienna

The development of Russian art is impacted in a particularly significant way by the performance of Tchaikovsky’s music in Vienna, where the formation of XVIII century classical music culture took place. For the rest of the world, Vienna represents the personification of Mozart, whose genius Tchaikovsky so sincerely admired. Tchaikovsky himself strove to write as naturally and harmoniously, as the Austrian Classic managed to do.

Tchaikovsky’s Music in Vienna

P.I. Tchaikovsky visited Vienna in the 1880’s. His relationship with the city was complicated. On the one hand, Vienna captivated the composer with its world renowned  musical charm. On the other hand, Tchaikovsky’s music took a long time to reach the hearts of the Austrian concert going public.

For instance, the famous Austrian conductor Hans Richter and the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra refused to perform his Third Symphony, considering it to be “too Russian”. The world premiere of his Violin Concerto occurred in Vienna in 1881, being conducted by Hans Richter, with the violinist Adolf Brodsky. Tchaikovsky’s music was harshly criticized by the music critic Eduard Hanslick, whose review was published in the Viennese paper Neue Freine Presse: “The violin…does not play, but scrapes, wails, and tears…we clearly see wild, vulgar faces, hear foul swearing, and smell vodka”.

In one of his letters to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky said the following about the recently played concert: “Some writer described a painting as being so truly ugly, that it reeks; listening to Mr. Tchaikovsky’s music, one gets the sense that music too, can stink”.

Fortunately, the Austrian public was later able to appreciate the Russian composer’s musical legacy. At the end of the 19th century, the position of head conductor of the Vienna Opera was taken up by Gustav Mahler (1897-1907). Thanks to his reforms, the Wiener Staatsoper once again became one of the main centers of European art. During this period, under the direction of Gustav Mahler, a series of Tchaikovsky’s operas were staged [“Eugene Onegin”” (1897), “Iolanta” (1900), “The Queen of Spades” (1902)]. Till this day, the musical archive at the Vienna Opera has preserved copies of scores published during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, which contain Gustav Mahler’s remarks.

Austrian-Russian cultural links

In our present day, cultural links between Austria and Russia have continued to develop. In 2015, the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra came to the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin, to mark the opening of the composer’s 175 year anniversary celebration, performing his Fifth Symphony under the direction of Riccardo Muti.

Recently, in March of this year, at the Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein, the P.I. Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra performed a unique premier of Tchaikovsky’s little known opera “Undine”, which was recreated from existing fragments (the Russian premiere took place in 2015, in Klin and Moscow). It is known that the piece’s score was destroyed by the composer himself due to a conflict with Director of the Imperial Theaters. The opera’s musical material was then used by Tchaikovsky in various other pieces.

The joint Austrian-Russian project had a significant cultural resonance. It involved both Russian and Austrian performers: the actor Peter Matich (Austria), soprano Anna Aglatova, tenor Sergei Radchenko, the “Wiener Singverein” Choir (a Viennese singing group; lead by art director Johannes Prinz). It was conducted by Vladimir Fedoseev, who has contributed enormously to the development of Austrian-Russian cultural links: from 1997 to 2006, he was the head conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Unique qualities of dramaturgy and performance history of the opera “Eugene Onegin”

“Eugene Onegin” is an opera which possesses a rich performance tradition. Its fate has been tied with that of many of Russia’s greatest musicians. Its “lyrical scenes” have been interpreted by some of the most famous conductors and musicians, including: Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Yevgeny Kolobov, Vladimir Fedoseev, and Valery Gergiev.

Different versions of the opera have been staged by various renowned stage directors. For instance, at the Bolshoi Theater, the famous opera was staged by Boris Pokrovsky, with the role of Tatiana being performed by Galina Vishnevskaya. As is known, Galina Vishnevskaya herself admitted that working on the role of Tatiana with Boris Pokrovsky has transformed her notion of what opera theater is.

It’s worth pointing out that “Eugene Onegin” is a unique work within Russian music, in which the composer achieved a total unity between the beautiful images of Pushkin’s poetry and the melodic expression of its musical texture.

A detailed analysis of this phenomenon in Tchaikovsky’s opera can be found in a book by the well known Russian musicologist Boris Asafyev** titled « “Eugene Onegin”. P.I. Tchaikovsky’s Lyrical Scenes. An experiment in intonational analysis of style and musical dramaturgy ».

He is the author of the book “Musical Form as a Process” (the second part of which is titled “Intonation”). He is the founder of a method of form analysis in Russian musicology based on intonation, who also studied theoretical problems which deal with music’s unique characteristics, the process-like nature of musical form, as well as creating the “theory of intonation”.

This is why this opera possesses a “Romance-like expression”, both in its monologues, when the characters are “alone with their own thoughts”, and in its dialogues or “conversations”.  By giving his opera the subtitle “Lyrical scenes”, Tchaikovsky created a Russian lyrical and physiological drama. The opera is particularly difficult to stage, specifically due to the fact that, Tchaikovsky’s opera-writing style does not typically feature operatic and stage performance-like affects. As the book’s author points out: “An important trait of the music is its connection with the Romance genre. The opera’s Romance-like style gives it the natural quality, the geniality, and the uniquely cordial lyricism that were intrinsic to the atmosphere of Russian domestic music making in the XIX century… The Romance-style influences not only the opera’s arioso style, but also its recitatives, which are elastic, expressive, and song-like”.

In an interview with radio “Svoboda”, the famous Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya said the following about Tchaikovsky’s opera: “‘Eugene Onegin’ plays a special role in the life of every Russian, whether it be the opera or simply Pushkin’s novel… Because of this, I, for example, have a negative reaction to any attempts at distorting it”.

Precisely for this reason, one of the persistent problems that any opera director encounters is the following dilemma:  how to preserve the opera’s original essence without forgoing a contemporary approach to emotional expression? After all, the most important goal of theater is, first and foremost, to not leave the audience indifferent to the performance on stage. But changing times carry with them a different audience. So this remains a problem that each director must face every time in its totality.


“Eugene Onegin” at the Vienna Opera

The role of stage director of “Eugene Onegin” at the Wiener Staatsoper was carried out by the well-known German playwright and director at the “Schaubühne” theater in Berlin, Richter Falk. The opera staged at the Vienna Opera has a long performance history. Richter Falk first staged it in 2009, after which it was given new life when, in 2013, it featured the debut performance of the opera diva Anna Netrebko as Tatiana Larina along with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin. This performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Lyrical scenes” at the Vienna Opera became one of the most grand events in global opera theater of 2013.

On the one hand, the director strove to preserve the original fable and to emphasize the intimacy with which the characters endure the events that take place. On the other hand, he also tried to take a more contemporary approach in order to give the audience a more direct and vivid perception of the conflicts and collisions in Pushkin’s novel.

This desire on the part of the director to relive every twist and turn in the plot with its original emotional intensity is, without a doubt, derived from the composer’s own conception of the opera’s style. This is what Tchaikovsky himself wrote in one of his letters to his brother Modest: “You won’t believe how much I am yearning for this plot… How happy I am to be rid of any Ethiopian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings, and all other kinds of stiltedness. How boundless is the poetry in Onegin!” While in a letter to the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Taneyev, he emphasized that: “…I have always tried to choose stories involving real, living people, who feel as I do”.

Possibly because of this, the director tried to minimize, as much as possible, any stage decorations that signify the period of time in which the opera is set. In terms of aesthetics, the director takes as a foundation the novel’s motif of winter. Winter imagery becomes a national symbol, as well a metaphor for Onegin’s cold indifference.

The director utilized the most common stereotypical imagery that Old Europe associates with Russia: snow, ice, cold, fur, vodka. It is undoubtedly the case, that some of these images could have been avoided, while others could have been developed with greater subtlety and ambiguity. For instance, the ice bed covered with bear hides that Tatiana Larina slept on appeared fairly comical to a Russian audience.

The use of snow as stage decoration became an “idee fixe”.  The amount of snow that falls throughout the show’s duration seems excessive even for a Russian audience! It’s worth pointing out, that Tchaikovsky’s opera has stage directions that specify seasonal changes, which occur as the plot develops. So, for instance, it is very difficult to imagine the first Act taking place in a Russian winter, especially given the fact that Tchaikovsky’s music is filled with a summer-like atmosphere and uses warm, at times even sultry intonations. It is unfortunate that the director paid no attention to one of the novel’s and opera’s important qualities: that the plot develops in conjunction with seasonal changes that occur in nature. This is not accidental! The changes in nature carry with them an entire universe of corresponding psychological changes and imagery.

It is also impossible to imagine Russian aristocracy drinking vodka at a ball, a detail which seemed out of place within the opera. Even more out of place was the Finale of the Ball scene, in which members of Russian nobility enter into a fist fight, while Lensky, in a fit of passion, pushes Olga to the ground (!!).

Another stumbling block, which hindered the emergence of an organic synthesis between the music and stage performance, were the dance numbers during the ball. They were presented to the audience more in a “club aesthetic”, rather than a ball-like one. The “dances on tables” did not fit Tchaikovsky’s music whatsoever; music which the famous Russian musicologist Boris Asafyev called the “era’s intonational dictionary”, meaning that Pyotr Ilyich was able to achieve an astounding synthesis of all types of musical intonation that were present during the noble Romantic Era of the Russian Empire in the first half of the XIX century. For this reason, melodies from various types of peasant songs fit seamlessly into the opera’s musical texture, while the dance genres recreate the atmosphere of the St. Petersburg aristocratic ball.

Yet, in spite of all these absurdities, the opera’s direction does have some interesting moments. For example, one of the performance’s undeniable successes is its staging of the opera’s final scene. The ball at the Gremin’s was staged entirely in a Gothic style. The members of noble society were all dressed in black, a bright steel staircase stretched across the entire width of the stage, along with tall columns, – all of these scenographic resources created a feeling of nobility and hopelessness in the Finale.

Another interesting scenographic device was the curtain design, which was stylized after Tatiana’s letter to Onegin.

The multinational cast of singers shined in the vocal parts. The role of Tatiana was sung by the Russian soprano Olga Bessmertnaya, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theater, the role of Onegin was performed by the British baritone Christopher Maltman, Olga was performed by the young St. Petersburg singer Ilseyar Khayrullova, in the role of Lensky – the famous Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik, and in the role of Gremin – the Finnish bass Mika Kares. It’s worth noting that the part of Gremin was the young Finnish singer’s debut performance at the Vienna Opera.

It was particularly gratifying to hear the singers’ excellent pronunciation of the Russian text, which was perfected to the smallest detail. With the exception of a few Russian letters (“r”, “e”, “y”, and “l”), which have a very particular articulation, one could hardly believe that the performers were not Russian speakers. This excellent pronunciation was also present in the choir’s singing, which performed Russian songs in Act I.

Also pleasing was the sincerely warm participation of the Austrian public. The audience listened to each aria with great pleasure, many of which have become hits a long time ago. The final applause lasted a long time and the performers were called back on stage many times. One can say without a doubt, that the Russian opera’s Vienna performance was a triumph!

** Boris Vladimirovich Asafyev (1884-1949) A Russian-Soviet composer, musicologist, and music critic. He is the author of the book “Musical Form as a Process” (the second part of which is titled “Intonation”). He is the founder of a method of form analysis in Russian musicology based on intonation, who also studied theoretical problems which deal with music’s unique characteristics, the process-like nature of musical form, as well as creating the “theory of intonation”.


The writer is Yana Rossi

The translation – Ilya Baburashvili


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