Friday, November 18, 2011

Guest Blogger EB reviews Eugene Onegin (English National Opera, November 15th 2011)

First bit of good news: New Yorkers, this show is coming your way - and it's a winner. Deborah Warner's intelligent, poetic production of Tchaikovsky's "Lyric Scenes" looks fabulous, and without any radical "concept", it is faithful to the spirit and letter of the work.

In any case, what's not to like about Onegin? (I refer to the piece, not the man - he is a bit of a pill to be honest). It takes a romantic view of its source material, but is never melodramatic or overblown. The score is achingly lovely, the characters expertly drawn and the dramatic pacing flawless. Each of the three acts has a "signature" dance - the Act 3 Polonaise being a particular jewel - around which the action is focused, Kim Brandstrup's choreography catching the individual tone of each superbly, especially in Act 2 where couples jostle for space in Larina's living room.

It was particularly interesting to hear Onegin so soon after The Queen of Spades; dramatically they are worlds apart, despite the common feature of Tchaikovsky's music, wherein rests so much of the drama. Where The Queen of Spades demands a particular type of imaginative response from a director, Onegin can be presented in any number of ways. The piece takes kindly to straightforward, simple productions (or not - Dimitri Tchernaikov's controversial Bolshoi production is generally well regarded). Fans of Robert Carsen's production, which Warner's will replace at The Met, will appreciate the "austerity" approach well.

For me, the benchmark production of this piece for me is Graham Vick's at Glyndebourne - spare, understated and painstakingly composed, it was enthralling and beautiful (anyone who saw Elena Prokina's thrilling Tatyana upending the water on her nightstand over her head at the end of the Letter Scene will not forget it in a hurry). Warner's production is not far behind in quality. Her work is characterised by a spartan visual aesthetic but enormous attention to detail, and she is renowned for her long and punishing rehearsal process. At ENO her work has focused on more unusual repertoire such as the successful St John Passion (and Messiah), the Diary of One Who Disappeared, and - best of all - Death in Venice. Onegin, therefore, represents a departure into mainstream repertoire for her.

It is updated to the late 19th Century - the reasons for this are not clear, but it certainly does no harm. It is visually detailed and sumptuous, yet no detail feels extraneous or decorative. Tom Pye's designs are marvellous, each stage picture carefully composed to capture the mood of each scene. There are impressive video front cloths (icy landscapes for the middle act, or a breathtaking view of the St Petersburg riverfront for Act 3). He uses his trademark reflective surfaces and glowing cycloramas, and populates them with telling detail. The Larin estate is represented by a huge barn where Tatyana also writes her letter, which exercised others more than it did me; the Act 2 party looks authentically cluttered and "provincial", whilst the duel takes place in a lonely, frozen wasteland. The Act 3 curtain evoked a gasp from the audience - vast, golden columns with glittering candelabras framing the couples parading across the floor to that Polonaise. The same columns inventively become a bleak outdoor colonnade on the Gremin estate for the final confrontation.

That confrontation is a reversal of the finale of Act 1 in Warner's thoughtful direction; after Onegin crushes Tatyana with his patronising lecture and returns her letter, he plants a lingering kiss on her lips before taking his leave. Tatyana does the same to him at the finale, pausing the action audaciously, before she leaves, every towering inch the Princess. Riveting stuff, along with the direction of the letter scene - Tatyana hardly writes at all, rather "rehearses" the speech to an imaginary Onegin, clearly something she has done many times before. There is a multitude of such telling details, along with detailed but unfussy treatment of the chorus. It is no mean feat for a production to appear so artlessly traditional, yet be crackling with dramatic tension .

The cast was good, but not great. Warner's treatment of Tatyana is perhaps controversial, and Amanda Echalaz - an artist I admire greatly - is always fascinating to watch. Yet this Tatyana is a little too much like Princess Gremina in the earlier scenes, too little like the shy country girl, so her apparent terror at her party never quite rings true. She sings as generously as ever, and there are some beautiful moments - but I wonder if this is really the ideal repertoire for her (compared with her wonderful performances in Italian Opera) and indeed some cautious moments may have betrayed tiredness at this second night. I have to say that she looked a million dollars in her Act 3 ballgown (indeed, all of Chloe Obolensky's costumes were exemplary).

Norwegian Audun Iversen as Onegin had an indifferent evening - he is pleasing to look at but hardly magnetic, and the voice lacks colour - this part in this house requires an altogether stronger performer (the last Onegin I saw here was Gerald Finley - enough said). The most successful performance came from Toby Spence's Lensky - an artist who can't seem to put a foot wrong these days and who grows from part to part. It was a fantastically nuanced, big-house performance with every word crystal clear. The translation, by the way, was by Martin Pickard - and at the risk of sounding too perverse - was somehow too prosaic. In a period production, taking the risk of using an altogether more poetic translation (as in that used previously at ENO - I believe by David Lloyd Jones) might lead to a better fit with the mood of Pushkin's verses.

No complaints about the excellent supporting cast. Claudia Huckle's charming Olga had a rich, authentically Russian contralto sound. It is hard to imagine a more glamorous, warm Larina than Diana Montague or a more expert Filipyevna than Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Brindley Sherratt's still-handsome Gremin was authoritative and dignified. Ed Gardner's music directorship goes from strength to strength - the orchestra played wonderfully well for him, and his pacing was spot on - another Tchaikovsky performance to treasure on the heels of Richard Farnes for Opera North.

This show will go down a storm in New York (I hear rumours of Netrebko) - catch it there if you can't catch it here first - highly recommended.

Next up: Castor et Pollux (Rameau) at ENO

Photo Credit: Neil Libbert

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