Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin
**** (4 stars)
Tatyana and her sister Olga live on a country estate, isolated from the world. Olga is very down-to-earth, but her sister’s head is always in the clouds as she reads novels and dreams of romantic heroes entering her life. Olga is being courted by a young poet, Lensky, who one day brings his friend Onegin to meet the girls and their mother, Madam Larina. Tatyana recognises the embodiment of her dream and instantly gives him her heart: Onegin, a man of the world, is unmoved. Tatyana stays up all night writing him a letter confessing her feelings: in the morning she is mortified when Onegin rejects her. At a party to celebrate her birthday, a bored Onegin flirts with Olga: Lensky challenges him to a duel. In the cold light of morning, both men regret that what has been done but refuse to admit it – they fire, and Lensky dies. Some years later, Onegin returns from his remorse-filled wandering and attends a grand ball in St Petersburg: he is astonished to see a blooming and confident Tatyana and realises he is in love with her. He goes to her house next day to urge her to fly with him: Tatyana confesses she still loves him, but duty will keep her with her husband. Happiness was so nearly theirs …
I was really looking forward to this opera, and I found the production SO DISAPPOINTING… set in a dusty and decaying drawing room into which came an old woman in a short green dress who opened the full-length shutters to let in the light and the action – ah! here is Old Tatyana …
There was the most gorgeous voice I’ve heard in a long time from Natalya Romaniw’s Tatyana; a pretty good one from Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin; a superb cameo from James Platt as Lensky’s second in the duel; and some quite good singing from other members of the cast but oh! the production was so drab and dismal when the music is bursting with the love of life and the heartbreak of unrequited love. Lensky [Peter Auty] sang well, but his top notes were almost always held in instead of being given full rein – whereas Tatyana simply opened her throat and let everything pour out. Olga [Sioned Gwen Davies] seemed miscast – not the sunny-natured blonde of the text, but a sour-faced brunette whose main joy in life seemed to be making her sister’s life a misery. Madame Larina [Alison Kettlewell] was obviously not resigned to her life in the country, and the nurse [Anne-Marie Owens] was a bit of a dull stick. The small parts were well done – a nice voice for an unusually young Monsieur Triquet [Christopher Gillet], but Price Gremin [Graeme Broadbent] was just too slow and too boring – the conductor’s fault? The producer’s? Or his own?
The conceit of having Old Tatyana [Rosy Sanders] observing the drama in the decaying drawing-room imposed so many restrictions on the action that I began to despair… the peasants didn’t dance, and sang from behind the scenes; the berry-picking girls against whose joyful singing Onegin delivers his shattering response to Tatyana’s letter filed into the orchestra pit to sing; Tatyana’s birthday dance had black-clad peasants dancing behind a gauze and six principals strutting their [almost Strictly] stuff in front of it, while the grand St Petersburg ball had a tutu-clad ballerina flirting with Onegin [who proved a surprisingly nifty dance partner for her] instead of the glittering spectacle the music demands. The quartet of lovers didn’t stroll in the garden, even the duel took place indoors – and all the while Old Tatyana moved the furniture around, laid a meaningful hand on someone in pain, covered Lensky’s abandoned corpse in his coat…
It’s possible that the decision to keep the action contained in this one set was due to some deep artistic Concept – or was it to save money on sets and costumes? I found the whole production drab and dismal, the only spot of colour being Tatyana’s deep jade green gown for the St Petersburg ball, which matched Old Tatyana’s alarmingly out-of-period frock. I found the chorus and Old Tatyana at times very distracting: and while having a spotlit Onegin sitting on a huge horse at the end of the first scene made an impressive image, having him bathing, with his naked buttocks displayed for Tatyana’s edification while she was waiting for his response to her letter was, to me, a gimmick that added nothing to my appreciation of the drama.
I love this opera, and having seen so many lively and colourful productions which also presented full-blooded passion and heartbreak, this lukewarm and drab production was a great disappointment – a dismal note on which to end Scottish Opera’s hitherto excellent season. I was not alone in my disappointment – the young man next to me was equally underwhelmed, and my companion said she’d overheard a number of disparaging remarks from others in the audience. The final applause was enthusiastic, but perhaps it was mingled with relief that the show was over….
Scottish Opera presents Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin Theatre Royal, Glasgow until 5th May) Then touring to Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Belfast.
Review by Mary Woodward.