On a very grim, rainy evening, Daniel Slater's new production of Eugene Onegin opened at Opera Holland Park (14 July). The theatre is completely watertight though partially open to the elements at the sides, but you felt great admiration for both singers and players in the way they performed as if there wasn't rain thundering on the roof or gusts of cold wind blowing through the auditorium. Instead they successfully transported us to Slater's slightly skewed vision of Tchaikovsky's opera.
During the prelude we saw the mature Onegin (Mark Stone) and Tatyana (Anna Leese) wandering across a stage which was littered with fragments of furniture and panelling. Designer Leslie Travers had produced a nearly all-white landscape which looked like the deconstruction of a palatial room, or a dream-scape. Though Onegin and Tatyana were on stage together, each was in their own dream of remembrance, they did not meet. Then for much of act 1, Stone was on stage as the mature Onegin, observing and remembering.
The clothes seemed to put the setting in the Edwardian period and Anne Mason's Madame Larina was clearly worried about money. Mason was a warm presence, ably seconded by Elizabeth Sikora's sympathetic Filippyevna. Hanna Pedley (as Olga) and Leese blended beautifully in the duet and Pedley was a characterful and interesting Olga, making a bit more of the character than usual.
With the coming of the chorus of peasants, Slater clearly wanted to avoid a conventionally pastoral view of this act. The peasants were angry and down-trodden, with Denni Sayers's characterful choreography nicely combining traditional style movement with threatening behaviour. The chorus did all their own dancing and contributed some nice elements of individual characterisation, so it was a shame that the some of the men's beards and make-up looked so artificial. After the dance, Madame Larina and Filippyevna collected quarter-day rents from the peasants, with many unable to pay. This was well contrasted with Olga's teasing of Tatyana; Pedley sang this with charm and unforced characterisation, but the underlying message seemed clear, the family could not afford for Tatyana to be dreamy, she needed to make a good marriage.
When Onegin (Mark Stone) and Lensky (Peter Auty) appeared, Auty was all puppyish charm and Stone severely buttoned up in his three-piece, double breasted suit. In their short moments in this act, Auty and Pedley created a nice feeling of the relaxed but intimate relationship between the two. Of Stone, I was less sure. He seemed so buttoned up, and in his suit came over more as a business man than a romantic archetype that Tatyana would fall in love with. His singing in this act was finely done, but a little dry and correct.
Leese by contrast was a brilliantly passionate Tatyana. She has a big lyric voice which blossomed beautifully in Tatyana's music and Leese successfully conveyed Tatyana's naive youth, without ever being over artful. Not every singer can manager these opening acts, but Leese successfully suggested the youthful nature of Tatyana's passion.
There was no bed in the letter scene, Leese simply ranged over the set writing letters furiously, all the while Stone's mature Onegin looked on. Leese's account of the letter scene was finely sung, with Leese's voice blossoming in a thrilling manner. This wasn't the most intense version of the scene that I have heard, instead Leese gave us the sense of a passionate, but youthful crush, the bubbling over of conflicting emotions being mirrored by the intense beauty of her tone.
Afterwards, the mature Onegin came centre stage and watched as the female chorus came on, not as peasant women but as mirror images of Tatyana carrying a letter. There was no charming pastoral activity, instead the words of the female chorus became slightly unnerving in the new context of the mature Onegin's memory. Stone and Leese's closing scene in this act was well done, but somehow did not seem to quite find the vein of suppressed passion that lies beneath.
For Madame Larina's party, the male guests were nearly all in military uniform and the women in stylish Edwardian evening dress with short (for the period) hemlines. Again there was some finely detailed chorus work, as they characterfully acted, reacted and danced proper dances. But small town life is claustrophobic and repetitive, at least that is what Slater seemed telling us. Various sections of the action were played repeatedly, usually involving Tatyana. But in this act it was the mature Tatyana who had been on stage before the action started, as if this was Tatyana remembering and endlessly replaying.
Gareth Dafydd Morris's Monsieur Triquet wasn't the elderly fop of most productions but a young and rather intense man who was obsessively, almost threateningly in love with Tatyana.
Stone's Onegin was simply not very nice in this act, clearly rather manipulative and enjoy his teasing of Lensky a bit too much. He was aided and abetted by Pedley who seemed to show Olga as a completely natural flirt. The explosion when it came, seemed to come out of nowhere. This is my problem with Auty's Lensky, it was very, very finely sung but without conveying much of what was going on underneath. For the ensemble, Leese sang her part as the mature Tatyana, remembering and commenting rather than taking part. Over-artful perhaps, but an idea which brought an interesting context to the action.
Auty's account of Lensky's final aria was simply one of the most beautifully sung versions of it that I have heard. Auty sang with passionate intensity and a fine Italianate line, so it seems churlish to complain. But.... I felt that we could have dug a little deeper into Lensky's pain. The concluding duet with Stone was bleakly and intensely controlled. Just as the end of act 1 had seen the mature Onegin dreaming of multiple Tatyanas, so that here it was implied that the mature Tatyana was dreaming of multiple Onegins as the stage was littered with male chorus members with pistols. At the end of the scene Pedley appeared, on another young man's arm, barely giving Lensky's body a glance; Olga clearly had got over Lensky quickly.
For act 3, the surtitles told us that five years had passed and it was here that Slater and Travers played their most startling card. Having been impressed with the way Sayers's choreography for acts 1 and 2 had incorporated proper dance into the drama, I had been looking forward to the polonaise. But with the passage of time we were in the revolutionary period. During the 'ball scene', the chorus were dressed as workers all busy doing characteristically (stereotypical?) worker-like things. There was no ball as such, just a receiving line when Gremin (Graeme Broadbent) and Tatyana greeted workers. Stone's Onegin was still in his double-breasted suit, rather standing out. The lighting turned revolutionary red, there was a huge picture of Lenin and Broadbent sang his aria as a public speech. Broadbent sang the aria well enough, though he rather forced the tone at the bottom of his voice, but the context was entirely wrong.
Stone then wrote a letter to Tatyana, using the same pen and paper as the youthful Tatyana. In this final scene, Stone finally opened up and matched Leese for passion and intensity. It was perhaps a little too late. Stone's performance, though very finely sung, made Onegin a little too unlikeable. Looking and sounding buttoned up, he was hardly the romantic beau ideal; perhaps this was the idea, but it didn't work for me.
Leese, as Tatyana, was a complete revelation. Passionately sung, she successfully balanced the older and younger Tatyana in a way which not every soprano manages. Leese's voice had a largeness, freedom and intensity which simply quite thrilling and I can't wait to hear what she does next.
I am not sure whether Pete Auty has sung Lensky before. The role seemed an interesting step for him, as he is known mainly for the Italian and French repertoire. His beautifully sung, vivid account of the role, made me want to hear him again, perhaps in a production which helps him dig a bit deeper into the character.
Anne Mason was warmly generous as Madame Larina, blending into the ensembles and forming a constant, but anxious presence. Elizabeth Sikora is rapidly becoming a national treasure, as Filippyevna she was profoundly expressive at all times, whilst never seeming to do much.
The opera was sung in creditable Russian with surtitles. Whilst it is always lovely to hear this work in Russian, given the existence of some very fine translations and the fact that all the cast were Anglophone, it seemed to be a shame not to give it in English.
The Opera Holland Park chorus were on good form throughout the evening, singing with passion, dancing with a will and making themselves part of the drama.
In the pit was Alexander Polianichko who has conducted Eugene Onegin in London before. He had clearly mastered the mechanics of conducting in this venue and ensured that the whole performance was well coordinated. He brought out some passionate playing from the City of London Sinfonia. His speeds were inclined to be on the swifter side, but playing the work with smaller forces this was understandable. Polianichko gave us a nicely focussed performance which maximised the intensity of the playing. The City of London Sinfonia, with just 20 strings, could not be expected to give this music the grand sweep that a bigger ensemble might. Instead they capitalised on this, concentrating on detail and focus, with some fine playing.
There were moments during the production when I thought that Slater was trying a little too hard to be different. The re-setting of Act 3 scene 1 was a mistake, which seemed to add nothing to our vision of the opera. But in his determination to avoid cosy pastoral and to set the opera in the context of Onegin and Tatyana's memories, Slater and his cast produced a finely sung and passionate performance.
See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012