Mrs Chrisparkle and I have actually seen very few operas over the years, and our most recent experiences have been in eastern European cities – Carmen in Leipzig; Nabucco in Riga and now Eugene Onegin in Bratislava. I find I get an additional thrill about seeing an opera production somewhere that used to be behind “the Iron Curtain”. I always think that thirty years ago or so it would have been where the people who had aggrandised themselves to Positions Of Importance by treading on the aspirations of ordinary members of society went to See And Be Seen. It’s basically a sense of being privileged. But nowadays it’s a more acceptable and less oppressive form of privilege – at least I hope.
From the outside the theatre is elegant, smart and beautifully lit at night. Ascend a few steps and you enter a wide and simply tastefully decorated foyer, all creams and golds. A gentleman sells programmes – 1,90 euros for a slim booklet in Slovak; 3,50 euros for a slightly fatter more detailed book translated into English and German. It is virtually compulsory to use the cloakroom, so you go down some staircases to another wide foyer, at one end of which about seven attendants await your coats and scarves; at the other end of which is the bar.
As people remove their coats you get to see how well dressed they really are. In the UK we don’t tend to dress up for the theatre anymore. Not so in Bratislava. Evening dresses, dinner jackets and bowties were in high evidence; the less formal men were wearing lounge suits and ties and their ladies in attractive dresses and outfits. Mrs C, of course, looked stunning in her jacket and smart trousers – but I was just “Man from Levi’s” and felt a little over-denimmed. Surprisingly though the staff behind the bar were rather scruffy. We had a glass of the Hubert Brut each – yes they actually had some – and it’s a perfect way to add to the sense of occasion.
Inside the auditorium the balconies and boxes are extremely ornate in their baroquish gold swirls and elegant balustrades. But what surprises you is that although the stage itself is very wide and you can get a lot on there, the stalls themselves don’t go back very far at all. It’s like you’ve arrived at a sawn-off London Palladium. They also sport the most uncomfortable seats you could imagine. Normally when you fold a theatre seat down, the base of the back rests a little bit above the seat pad. In this theatre there’s about a six inch gap between the base of the back and the seat, plus the seat pad is pushed forward a good few inches too. The only way I could find to sit in the seats with any degree of comfort was basically to hunch down and sprawl widely which I’m not sure was appreciated by the lady to my left. I think the seats must have been designed by the Sales and Marketing Department of Bratislava Chiropractors, Inc.
But what of the performance itself? Well, to my inexpert opera-going eyes, I thought it was excellent. It’s a modern staging, full of downbeat looking peasants, and men slouching over empty bottles of vodka, making a vivid contrast with the bookish decency of Tatyana and the exuberant naïveté of Olga, as well as the stolid goodness of Lensky and the devilish sophistication of Onegin. Tatyana was sung by Adriana Kohútková and she was brilliant. In the early parts of the opera the plot focuses heavily on Tatyana and she delivered a really powerful performance. I enjoyed the way they had stacked her books slightly proud of the main curtain so when she was clambering over them trying to find somewhere to sit and write her love letter she was more exposed; then on scene changes I liked how she would pull the curtain half across the stage, cowering in the protection it gave her, peeping round its edges scared of what she might see.
Surrounding the substantial orchestra pit is an apron that provides a complete circular walkway (well, square really) from one front corner of the stage, out past the orchestra, all along right in front of the first row, and back to the stage again. When the main characters came out and used this apron, you really felt as though you were in the thick of the action. Miss Kohútková was stunning when she was out on the apron. You couldn’t take your eyes (or ears) off her.
Pavol Remenár’s Eugene Onegin also made excellent use of the front apron, mainly in the penultimate scene where he confronts Tatyana and her new husband Gremin (the crowd-pleasing deep bass of Gustáv Beláček, who was fantastic) tearing his hair in anguish and singing for all he was worth. In the earlier scenes he was excellent as the slightly foppish chancer who flirts with much of the chorus and breaks the heart of Tatyana. Funny to think that Pavol Remenár attempted to represent Slovakia at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest – it’s great when two worlds collide! Tatyana and Gremin spent the ballroom scene actually in a box watching the stage like everyone else, and sang their roles from that spot, so that the people sitting in the box one level above them were visibly perplexed as they knew something was going on underneath but couldn’t quite fathom out what.
Some other very nicely done moments included the kindly but humorous performance of Jitka Sapara-Fischerová as Filipievna the nurse, the over-the-top French song of M. Triquet sung amusingly by Ivan Ožvát, and the staging of the duel between Onegin and Aleš Briscein’s Lensky, where both characters were surrounded by their seconds and other onlookers, gradually closing in on the pair of them till you heard a shot, and Lensky’s body just slowly fell out of the crowd onto the stage in front. I really loved Lensky’s aria that he sings just before the duel – even though I didn’t understand a word of the Russian I found it very moving and superbly performed. After Lensky’s death the music becomes very vital and exciting – a fantastic tune and its juxtaposition with Onegin’s static soul-searching regret for what he has done made for a surprisingly effective moment.
The opera ends with Tatyana’s and Onegin’s finale scene where the lives are visibly ruined and nobody wins – except the audience who were witness to a fine performance. The orchestra conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink sounded fine to me and all in all it was a wonderful evening. It certainly gave us a taste to widen our knowledge of opera and if you’re up for a bit of culture in Bratislava I would definitely recommend a performance at the National Theatre.