Here we have two major productions of two popular Tchaikovsky works for the stage, but two rather different approaches are taken. Let's take a look first at The Nutcracker. It is a quite traditional, visually splendid production. That's not a surprising verdict considering the fact it's from the Bolshoi Ballet, with all the expected trappings, from the imaginative choreography of Yuri Grigorovich and dancing of Nina Kaptsova, Artem Ovcharenko, and Denis Savin, to the spirited playing by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra under Pavel Klinichev. The costuming is colorful and magically combines both the regal and fairytale worlds. Almost everything else about this production is first-rate, from the lighting and sets to the camera work and vivid sound reproduction.
I mentioned three of the principal dancers as standouts here, but actually the entire cast, as well as the Bolshoi's corps de ballet are also outstanding. With such consistent excellence, one has to look hard to find something to quibble about in this production. True, the Indian dance (track 19) wasn't a great success, as the female dancer struggled in a few spots. The tempos in the French dance (track 22) and Waltz of the flowers (track 23) may be a tad on the slow side and perhaps the trombone prominence in a few numbers, most notably the first part of The Battle – Duet of Marie and the Nutcracker (track 13), was a bit much. But, really, there's relatively little to criticize in this production.
Some may carp over the fact that adults are, with one minor exception, cast in the roles played by children, but that's hardly a weakness. It is actually in line with Grigorovich's altered treatment of the libretto, where Marie (who is usually known as Clara) is an adult who falls in love with and marries the Nutcracker Prince. It all, of course, turns out to be a dream. In the end, this offering must be ranked as a major success. There is also a splendid video recording of The Nutcracker by Gergiev and the Mariinsky on Decca, but you can hardly go wrong with this new one from BelAir Classiques.
In many ways the Onegin production is just as successful. The singing by the principals is excellent, and the performance by the orchestra under the deft leadership of Mariss Jansons is also beyond cavil. From just a listening point of view then, this Onegin is superb, stunning actually. The costuming and sets, as well as camera work and sound, are splendid as well. So what could be controversial here?
Stage director Stefan Herheim mixes in three time periods, placing the action in early 19th century Russia, the Soviet era, and modern day. Various symbols of Russia from different periods appear throughout the opera: a bear (long a symbol of Russia, but here it dances), cosmonauts, athletes (figure skaters, acrobats, gymnasts, etc.), ballet dancers, Eastern Orthodox priests, and more. Obviously Herheim sees this Tchaikovsky opera as encompassing much of Russia's history. But, of course, that is a view that many will assert egregiously expands on the Pushkin story upon which the opera is based. That said, Herheim makes an excellent case for his approach, presenting his interpretation effectively and in a visually opulent production. My only criticism of his take on the story is, as is the case with many such modernized opera productions, when something symbolic appears on stage it is often presented in too obvious a way (as you may already have suspected) or simply puzzling: in the Act III ball scene one of the male ballet dancers seems to make aggressive advances toward Onegin – is this some kind of allusion to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality? If so, what's the point of bringing it up?
But having given this analysis, I think I can say this performance is ultimately more about Tchaikovsky and Puskin than about Herheim. So, even if you question Herheim's take on the story, I think overall you will enjoy this production, especially because of the singing of Krassimira Stoyanova and the spirited playing by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings