Henrik Ibsen, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Norway, Russia, Richard Rogers opera Uncategorized


Tatyana, a young country girl of obscure family given to romantic dreaming, falls suddenly for Yevgeny, an older, more worldly neighbour. Impulsively, she sends him a passionate declaration of love. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879) – inspired by a verse novel of Pushkin – pivots on his response to the letter, delivered in person later that day. To Tatyana’s growing dismay, Onegin condescends. He is flattered by her proposal: if he were to fall in love with anyone it would be her! But, he loftily explains, his heart is hardened against emotions. He cannot love her, except perhaps as a brother (!). It is as well that he, a man of honour, was the letter’s recipient; another, less scrupulous, might have taken advantage. The music suggests he may have meant this kindly but Tatyana wants a lover not a moral advisor. She is left despairing and humiliated.

Eugene Onegin

Alfred Allmers, ‘landed proprietor and man of letters’, comes back from a long holiday hiking in Norway’s mountains. We quickly learn from Rita Allmers how long he has neglected her emotionally and physically. Now, on his return, he goes one further. He has not written the book he went away to write but has found a new purpose to his life, he tells her. From now on he will devote himself entirely to their crippled son Eyolf. The appalled Rita, whom Alfred has been avoiding, knows this is a mortal threat to her happiness. In this autumn’s wonderful Almeida production she opens her dress to reveal her breasts in an unavailing attempt to stir the stodgy Alfred. Director Richard Eyre’s dramatic coup de theatre is justified by the text of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894): we later learn that the boy’s injury derives from a cradle injury while the neglectful couple were making love. Eyolf, desperate for companionship among local boys swimming on the beach, later drowns.


Just desserts?

The scornful Onegin receives his quittance. He quarrels with his best friend Lensky, whose fiancée he has casually romanced. Too stiff – as ever – to appease the outraged Lensky he kills him in a duel. Now he must flee for years of empty womanising in exile. On his return he goes to a ball attended by his distant and distinguished relative Prince Gremin. Gremin has lately married and the startled Onegin discovers his bride to be Tatyana herself. Thrown into confusion and violent desire, he takes the first opportunity to declare his love. But Tatyana reminds him of his scornful treatment of her younger self. Her eventual rejection of him is no tit-for-tat: she is tempted by Onegin’s passionate outburst. Yet she knows Gremin genuinely loves her whereas Onegin spurned his chance long ago. In faint echo of the sad musings of her mother that open the opera, she chooses duty over passion and remains faithful. Onegin’s motives are ambiguous. Tchaikovsky leaves us to decide whether he is animated by true love or envy of Tatyana’s newly-elevated status. But it is he who ends the opera in despair.

Rita Allmers comes close to seeing her son as a rival (how mercilessly Ibsen observes mothers and sons). Yet Eyolf’s death by drowning leads to no physical reunion with her husband. They stay together not through mutual desire but to fulfil a social obligation by caring for the poor children of the village. Thus public duty trumps private desire, at least on Rita’s part. Onegin (and later Tatyana) stifle private desire with private obligation. True romantic love is represented by Lensky who is besotted by Olga, Tatyana’s older sister. In killing Lensky, Onegin kills romantic love too. Duty and love are poor bedfellows.

The Allmers once consummated their love but something – perhaps the birth of little Eyolf, perhaps Alfred’s unholy interest in his step-sister – has soured it. Onegin’s stolid treatment of Tatyana means they can never enjoy each other. Lensky’s death robs him of Olga: his haunting lament for lost life and love is rhapsodically sung by the fine young tenor Michael Fabiano. In the Royal Opera House’s unjustly criticised production – one of Kaspar Holten’s last before he leaves in 2017 – Onegin’s loveless philandering is depicted through dance. The fine ROH chorus and orchestra under Semyon Bychkov excel here, as throughout.

Onegin, lacking self-knowledge, must return home to learn why his life is empty. In the title role Dmitri Hvorostovsky does not have the best tunes. How can there be rhapsody for a man who puts romance second? Tchaikovsky’s opera is a threnody to unacted desires: better murder an infant in its cradle than cherish one of those. Ibsen’s great play suggests that the Allmers, albeit indirectly, might have done just that. Eyolf dies in any case.  Little Eyolf is concentrated in time and place; Eugene Onegin spans the vastness of Russia. The play is taut, economically written, concentrated; the opera is languorous, romantic and lush. But both express the folly of the morally upright. In ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ Richard Rodgers wrote tunefully of a man who ‘horizontally speaking (is) at his very best’. Alfred and Yevgeny, prig and snob, are vertical men who kill the thing they love.

german history opera


Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)

March brings a Kurt Weill score with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, from 1930 Leipzig, just as the Weimar Republic started to die. London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) took 85 years to catch up with a rollocking modernist production supporting Jeremy Sams’ street-wise translation. Has it made up for lost time?

The opera might be considered a morality tale. Three crooks on the run found a settlement where anything goes: one, the widow (and brothel madam) Begbick, has seven ‘girls’ available.  Four Alaskan lumberjacks also arrive seeking a better life.  Given the location (‘Amerika’) this might be the Puritans’ ‘shining city on a hill’, the perfectible Susquehanna society of Southey and Coleridge, a socialist utopia.

But Brecht doesn’t do bromides.  At first the utopian project founders on its economic contradictions and an excess of rules (‘no happy songs after nine o’ clock’). One lumberjack, Jimmy McIntyre (Kurt Streit), becomes so disillusioned he calls for re-foundation of Mahagonny as a city of licence.  You can have your dream provided you can pay: it is a bourgeois republic of rights, a new Sodom where men find food, sex, fighting and drink.  The crooked accountant Fatty eats himself to death; Depression-era queues await Begbick’s girls; lumberjack Alaska Joe briefly tastes boxing glory before dying in a bare-knuckle fight.  The only two female ‘characters’ are Begbick (an underpowered Anne Sofie von Otter), a maker of markets and Jimmy’s girlfriend Jenny (Christine Rice), a woman on the make. The waitresses assisting Fatty’s gastro-suicide are in supportive roles.  Begbick’s other girls don’t even have names,

When free-spending Jimmy can’t pay his whisky bill, there’s a reckoning.  In court he finds Begbick presiding.  Earlier she took a bribe to acquit a murderer because no injured party had come forward to complain! But Jimmy is skint so gets blamed for crimes he has not committed.  Worse, for buying whisky without paying – his only property crime – he is condemned to death.  The law exists solely to ensure the process of exchange is unimpeded: justice itself is merely another traded commodity. The only capital crime is to lack the means of exchange. No one who has drunk with Jimmy now offers their own money to save him.  Jenny betrays him too and returns to whoring. A commentator sneers that the opera audience wouldn’t stump up either, and the Covent Garden cameras switch to the expensive stalls front row to underline the point. Jimmy gets the chair, his electrocuted body mangled like Christ’s on the cross.

The classically-trained Weill was not a musical revolutionary.  His slightly older contemporaries – Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg – all pushed the boundaries more.  Even Brecht smocked his conservatism. But Mahagonny brilliantly references a range of musical modes from Beethoven to jazz, anticipating his Hollywood years when he was a father of the musical.  His lyrical gifts are heard in Jenny’s haunting ‘O Moon of Alabama’. Weill and Brecht also produced the sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and The Threepenny Opera, debunking high culture and holding a mirror to the venal audience.  We don’t need to imagine them, only look at Georg Grosz’s Weimar caricatures. The Brownshirts demonstrating at Mahagonny’s premiere and disrupting later performances knew what was going on.  In 1933 Brecht and Weill (who was Jewish) left Germany just in time.


Georg Grosz, The Pillars of Society (1926)

Sometimes the ROH production of Mahagonny forces its audience to think, not wallow.  Begbick’s giant lorry is straight out of a Calais truck-park. Spun round it’s a nightclub where a virtuoso black pianist plays jazz.  Spun again it’s a brothel shuffling men queue for.  Clever graphics depict the stock market and a hurricane that menaces – but hilariously avoids – Mahagonny. The Jimmy/Jenny romance ends with his money and is barely redeemed.   But did the audience leave unsettled? Perhaps Mahagonny comes too early in Brecht’s career for this question, and it was after all a co-production. And in our era, when no-one at HSBC is to blame and we still haven’t sent any bankers to the chair, perhaps we are unshockable.  Our reality makes this dystopia tame, for all the jokes and virtuoso singing.

(This is an edited version of a review to appear in the April 2015 number of Labour Briefing)