Eugene Onegin: Royal Opera, 4th February 2013

E-mail Print PDF

The Royal Opera is devoted solely to Tchaikovsky at present, with thirteen consecutive performances of Onegin playing on the Covent Garden stage. In a neat flourish of double programming, Tchaikovsky’s opera – or Lyric Scenes – are running alongside a revival of John Cranko’s excellent ballet, which also uses music by Tchaikovsky, but entirely from other sources. In Cranko’s version of the Letter Scene, he has Tatyana dance with a ‘dream vision’ of Onegin, who appears through her bedroom mirror. Having seen the ballet last week, I jested with my co-editor that a pas de deux for Onegin and Tatyana might well be on the cards once again for the opera. I wish I’d placed a bet, for that’s exactly what happened!

In his programme note introduction, Kasper Holten, Royal Opera Director, expresses his hope that audiences will look afresh at Eugene Onegin through this new staging, his first for Covent Garden. Directors have been searching for new angles on Tchaikovsky’s opera for years and Holten isn’t the first to shift the perspective so we view events through the lens of hindsight, with all the bitter regrets that can bring. It is understandable that Holten wants to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty as soon as possible and Onegin is an opera which means much to him – he even learnt Russian specifically in order to read Pushkin’s original verse novel. However, the Royal Opera’s previous production by the late Steven Pimlott only opened in March 2006 and can consider itself unlucky to be put out to grass at such a tender age.

Ironically, the production of Onegin in which Krassimira Stoyanova sang Tatyana was Stefan Herheim’s for Netherlands Opera which also featured flashback techniques – a glossy, cluttered and at times frustrating staging which had conductor Mariss Jansons at odds with the director’s vision. Elements of that production are shared here – dumb show opening; an older Onegin and Tatyana reflecting on the past, but powerless to change events; a young Tatyana represented by a dancer – but Holten manages to maintain a much clearer narrative. Certainly we don’t get anything as bewildering as Tatyana dictating her letter to a feverish Onegin, while Gremin is asleep in their bed. Instead, Holten offers a moving, intelligent and – yes – a fresh perspective on the opera which succeeds on many levels.

Holten refashions the three acts into two halves; Scenes 1 to 4 view the action from Tatyana’s perspective, while after the interval Scenes 5 to 7 are told from Onegin’s viewpoint, all using a single set by Mia Stensgaard showing part of a room through which four doors open. We espy a very painterly wheatfield in the opening scenes, while a video blizzard rages before Onegin’s duel with Lensky. Katrina Lindsay provided traditional, stylish costuming, although her female party guests, dressed all in black, looked somewhat predatory.

Holten’s use flashback suits his leading lady. Stoyanova is dramatically more convincing portraying the mature Tatyana, raised to the aristocracy by her marriage to Prince Gremin, than she is playing the young girl, besotted with books until she is suddenly gripped by her infatuation with Onegin. Therefore, having her younger self largely played by a mere slip of a girl – dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen – while Stoyanova’s Tatyana observes works extremely well, especially in the Letter Scene. While Stoyanova looks on, her finished letter (which she’s kept all this time) in hand and singing as accomplished an account as I can recall, Olsen brilliantly embodies the fevered excitement burning in the young Tatyana until she imagines Onegin (dancer Thom Rackett) appearing in her dreams. After her rejection, instead of adjourning for an interval, we stay and watch dancer Tatyana tears pages furiously from her books during the prelude before Act II begins. Stoyanova’s creamy, rich soprano did full justice to Tchaikovsky’s score, from soaring emotions to horrified despair at Onegin’s desperate closing pleas.

Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin is no diffident Mr Darcy figure, cold and sneering, but an affable gent, quick to share a joke with Tatyana at the seriousness of Lensky’s poem in praise of Olga. His rejection of Tatyana’s letter is almost apologetic and he nearly seals it with a kiss, but withdraws just in time. Here is an Onegin who is closer in spirit to Olga than her older sister, which makes his flirting with her at Tatyana’s name-day party seem perfectly natural. Indeed, even as the duel approaches, Onegin isn’t really taking the whole thing too seriously. It is Pavol Breslik’s Lensky who is the earnest, passionate one here – he’s penned Monsieur Triquet’s couplets in praise of Tatyana, which he silently mouths, and his short fuse leads him to read too much into Onegin’s relationship with Olga. Lensky duels with dancer Onegin, which permits a particularly lovely touch where Keenlyside’s Onegin almost intimately whispers back Lensky’s lines in their duet in canon. In fine vocal form, Keenlyside sang a neat account of his aria rejecting Tatyana’s letter, smooth legato much in evidence, while his descent into the dishevelled, despairing Onegin was reflected in his passionate Act III arioso. Once or twice, he appeared constricted in his upper register, less free than usual.

Breslik’s Lensky was very fine, a beautifully sung ‘Kuda, kuda’ with honeyed head notes, even if he lacked a little firepower for the great ensemble following his challenging Onegin to the duel. His Olga was the lively Elena Maximova (who also sang in the Herheim production), whose rich, sumptuous mezzo could occasionally sound too dark for the role. The role of Gremin is a bit of a steal – wait until the final act to make your entrance, then sing a single, glorious aria, earn a quick ovation, then disappear off to your dressing room again. Peter Rose nailed Gremin’s aria with plenty of the required gravitas and tenderness, but he wasn’t finished. In a telling closing scene, Tatyana and Onegin reflect on what might have been as the young versions of themselves steal away together, before a silent Gremin witnesses Tatyana make the choice which breaks all three of them. One senses that after Onegin departs, their marriage will never be the same.

Smaller roles were generally well taken. Kathleen Wilkinson was a robust, sympathetic Filipyevna. Diana Montague, Madame Larina in Pimlott’s production, revives the role with style, while French tenor Christophe Mortagne sings Triquet’s (or Lensky’s) couplets with less over-the-top humour than usual (thank goodness). Jihoon Kim, not singing in the most idiomatic Russian, added presence as Zaretsky.

Robin Ticciati conducted a light, airy account of Tchaikovsky’s score, possibly a little short on unbuttoned passion but focusing on exquisite detail, such as the flecks of colour from harp and woodwinds in the Letter Scene. There were moments of co-ordination problems between pit, the Royal Opera Chorus and off-stage singers in the opening scene, but his lightly-sprung tempi were, more often than not, joyous to hear.

Not everything here is an unqualified success. Stensgaard’s single set is too forwardly placed to allow space for any significant dancing – the peasants’ chorus and dance is static, with only Tatyana (dancer) raised over their heads lost in her reverie; the Act II Waltz only focuses on Onegin and the Cotillon is danced off-stage. The Polonaise is handled completely differently, with Onegin resorting to drink and debauchery with a bevy of dancers, proving the kiss of death to any he gets close to, while the Écossaise is merely hinted at. The action between the four doorways will also mean that audience members on the extreme left or right of the House will miss some important action.

Curiously, the dead Lensky is left on the stage, along with the log he mysteriously drags in before the duel, for the whole of Act III, requiring principals and dancers to gingerly negotiate both corpse and copse. Holten is doubtless making the point that the past litters our lives – Tatyana’s stack of books have remained in situ since the very opening scene – and we just have to accept that we cannot change the past, but Lensky’s lifeless body distracts the eye (as well as being pretty tough on Breslik). Still, there was absolutely no cause for the (very) minor eruption of booing which took place when the production team took their curtain call. For those whose minds are open, Holten succeeds in his wish to make us look afresh at Onegin with this intelligent, thoughtful take on Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s classic.


Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Bill Cooper





Last Updated ( Friday, 31 May 2013 09:13 )  

Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter