Eugene Onegin

Reviewer's rating

Tchaikovsky very much wanted to write opera for adults about real characters, avoiding implausible operatic devices and melodramatic conceits. In ‘Eugene Onegin’ he traces the dangers bound up in romantic delusion: the young and naïve Tatyana develops an infatuation with Onegin, an older, bored, and somewhat dissolute aristocratic neighbour, but he brusquely dismisses her. In a secondary plot, his careless flirting with Tatyana’s sister, Olga, causes his best friend to challenge him to a duel, which results in Lensky’s death. Years later he encounters Tatyana again, now married to a middle-aged prince in St Petersburg. This time the roles are reversed as he regrets his past actions and throws himself at her. In line with Tchaikovsky’s declared aesthetic, there is no conventionally happy or tragic ending, but rather a recognition that life in the cold light of day involves necessary compromise. So she remains with her husband and rejects what passion seems to dictate.

One of the problems with the opera is that the character of Onegin himself remains undercooked in comparison with that of Tatyana, whose emotional development is really the core theme. Director Julia Burbach tried to refocus things in this production by placing Onegin as a silent witness in a number of scenes where he does not appear. So he appears, for example, in the famous ‘letter scene’ where Tatyana describes and crystallises her hopeless infatuation, as well as in the famous aria where Lensky, his friend, laments his fate, before the duel that has such dire results for all concerned. This approach has mixed results – it certainly humanises Onegin and makes him less two-dimensional, but at the expense of musical continuity. The letter scene needs to build and accumulate in intensity which it does not here where there is so much visual distraction – we miss the sense of lonely, unrealistic obsession. Also, the poignancy of Lensky’s farewell to life is diminished by Onegin’s agonised witness. While the director’s intentions are laudable the execution offers significant downsides.

That said, there are many plus points to this production, which will surely emerge more clearly once it beds down (and if/when the weather warms up – temperatures of 10 degrees made the first night a test for singers and audience alike!) The flexible set by takis is excellent, both abstract and precise in its folding panels of doors and windows so that transitions between scenes was seamless. The chorus sang powerfully in the ball scenes that occur in both halves of the evening, though their dancing was a little underwhelming. The City of London Sinfonia under the baton of Lada Valešová took some time, like all of us, to warm up, but by the time we reached St Petersburg they were in fine form, dispatching the polonaise with panache and finding a biting, incisive ensemble for the final confrontation between Tatyana and Onegin.

The singers were mostly well-matched in their voices, though the acting was more uneven. In the title role, Samuel Dale Johnson is excellent in both capacities, finding much more depth and emotional range than is usual in this stiff-necked, self-centred figure. You really believed in his remorse and anguish by the end, which is not always the case in this opera. Opposite him, Anush Hovhannisyan depicted Tatyana as a bookish Jane Austen heroine, but as a result, we missed some of the girlish impetuosity of the character in the first half – she seemed more at ease as a ‘grande dame’ in St Petersburg. Playing her mother and sister, Amanda Roocroft and Emma Stannard were more convincing in those early scenes, embracing country life with infectious enthusiasm and brio. Thomas Atkins sang most lyrically as Lensky, but his acting of the role remained circumscribed. Matthew Stiff completed the major roles with a resonant, gravely uxorious account of Gremin’s aria, which was much admired by the audience.

As usual at Holland Park Opera the production team is excellent, with tasteful period costumes and settings consistently deployed with just enough detail to convince but not too much to overload or prolong the changes of scene. Lighting is also sensitively engaged with the mood changes, especially important given the neutral tones of the overall palette of the set.

While not all the interventions of the director succeeded, the thoughtful approach was very much in keeping with the overall ambitions of the composer.