The Royal Opera House 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 first 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 of 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.
Photographs © Bill Cooper