I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.
Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.
Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act, the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.
Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:
Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!
It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.
So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?
Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?
The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.
Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).
The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.
So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.