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The Arts

Bolshoi to Open Season with Eugene Onegin
Glenn Walters
That supreme classic of Russian opera, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, is scheduled to open the Bolshoi Theater’s 231st season on September 1 in a new production staged by Dmitri Chernyakov, currently the brightest light among the younger generation of Russian operatic directors.

Chernyakov’s directorial talents first came to the attention of opera lovers eight years ago with the world premiere in Novosibirsk of Vladimir Kobekin’s opera The Young David, which went on to gain a Golden Mask award nomination. Two seasons later, Chernyakov was engaged by the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg to stage Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Invisible City of Kitezh. That production not only drew cheers on its home stage, as well as on tour in both Moscow and New York, but also brought Chernyakov the first of his three Golden Masks for direction.

In the interim, Chernyakov has staged Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar and Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde for the Mariinsky, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida for the Novosibirsk Theater of Opera and Ballet and a much-admired version of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress for the Bolshoi. In each case, he directed the action on stage and designed the production’s decor.

Last December, Chernyakov undertook his first foreign assignment, a production in Berlin of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov which placed the action in present-day Moscow, using, among other locales, the Central Telegraph building on Tverskaya Ulitsa and, in place of the inn on the Lithuanian border, just an ordinary, Moscow-style fast-food kiosk. Although Berlin audiences greeted the proceedings with a fair number of boos, critical response was mostly favorable.

Throughout his career in opera, Chernyakov has taken a highly eclectic approach to matters of time and place. His stagings of The Rake’s Progress and Tristan and Isolde play out in present-day surroundings and his Aida moves from the land of the pharaohs to a totalitarian state closely resembling the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev era. But both The Invisible City of Kitez and A Life for the Tsar stay firmly planted, as their librettos specify, in a Russia of olden times. Whatever path he follows, the point of Chernyakov’s stagings remain the same — to delve deeply into the opera’s story and to tell it with the utmost clarity. On both counts, he has proved remarkably successful.

Chernyakov’s audacious stagings have understandably failed to please at least some audience members, not only in Berlin, but here at home as well, especially among older and more conservative members of the operatic public. When the Bolshoi first announced at a press conference last year that he would take on Eugene Onegin, a lady journalist of advanced years rose to say, in plaintive tones, “We all know what Dmitri Chernyakov does to the classics of opera. Will it still be possible for us to see a normal Eugene Onegin?” A heated discussion ensued as to the meaning of “normal,” the debate failing to come to any sort of conclusion.

For a normal Eugene Onegin, the journalist no doubt had in mind the massive, colorful production by Boris Pokrovsky that has held the Bolshoi stage for over a thousand performances since its premiere in 1944. Though Moscow has grown accustomed to Pokrovsky’s version, the approach it takes very much contradicts what Tchaikovsky himself had in mind.

Tchaikovsky composed Eugene Onegin as an intimate work for students of the Moscow Conservatory and laid down a strict set of rules for its performance. “I need,” he wrote, “1) singers of average quality, but well-schooled and firm-voiced; 2) singers who can, in addition, act simply but well; 3) a production that is not luxurious, but conforms strictly to the time in which the action takes place [the 1820s], with costumes that are absolutely of that time; and 4) a chorus that acts not like a herd of sheep, as on the Imperial stages [i.e., the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky], but takes part in the action.”

Students of the Conservatory gave Eugene Onegin its first performance at Moscow’s Maly Theater in March 1879. Due to the opera’s overwhelming success at the premiere – though not without considerable persuasion, especially by close friend and Moscow Conservatory founder Nikolai Rubinstein – the composer eventually agreed to expand his score and release it for production at the Bolshoi, where it made its bow in January 1881. Since then, through seven subsequent productions — including a second by Pokrovsky that played during the 1990s — Eugene Onegin has virtually never left the Bolshoi repertoire, chalking up more than 2,000 performances.

Pokrovsky’s 1944 production of Eugene Onegin was the first opera Chernyakov ever attended. In the two decades since, he has seen it at least 30 times, most recently at a Bolshoi performance last season at the Kremlin Palace. “It was very beautiful, in a Hollywood sort of way,” he said, in a conversation at the Bolshoi early last month. “But this last time I was struck by how it all seemed like a ritual. Everything was so carefully programmed. I’d call it a sort of ‘virtual Onegin’.”

Chernyakov’s version is bound to be quite different. “It definitely won’t be a picture of life in Old Russia,” he said. “In fact, time and place will be of no importance. I’m taking my inspiration from the films of [Swedish director] Ingmar Bergman, with a focus on the characters and their inner psychological lives, as well as on shifts in the drama between reality and illusion. The action is going to stress freedom and spontaneity.”

To carry out his concept of the opera, the Bolshoi is providing several casts of suitably young singers for the roles of Onegin, Lensky, Tatyana and Olga, some of them brought in from elsewhere as guest soloists.

For those who may miss the initial performances of Chernyakov’s Eugene Onegin on the first four days of this month, there will be more performances scheduled during the season, with the next performances in November.

In the past, Chernyakov has combined his work in opera with stints of directing spoken drama. Indeed, two years ago, when he received a Golden Mask for directing The Rake’s Progress, his production at Novosibirsk’s Globus Theater of the 18th-century French playwright Pierre Marivaux’s La Double Inconstance also garnered a Golden Mask. Back then, the director declared an intention to divide his time more or less equally between opera and spoken drama. But in the meantime, he has had a change of heart. “I mostly want to do opera,” he told me, and added, with special emphasis - “Russian opera”.

And Russian opera it will be when Chernyakov takes on his next two assignments. In March 2007, he directs Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, and later next year he returns to Berlin to stage Sergei Prokofiev’s The Gambler. At this rate, it may not be very many more seasons before Chernyakov has applied his touch to nearly all of the standard Russian operatic repertoire.

Given the limitations imposed by restoration work on the Bolshoi’s main premises, and particularly a severe reduction in rehearsal space, the theater has only one more operatic premiere on its books for the current season; a new production of Boris Godunov, scheduled for next April and due to mark the first venture into live theater by noted film director Alexander Sokurov.

For the Bolshoi Theater performance schedule and ticket information, in both Russian and English, consult

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