Saturday, 4 June 2016

In period but not slavishly naturalistic: a highly dramatic Eugene Onegin at Garsington

Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Roderick Williams, Natalya Romaniw - photo Mark Douet
Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Roderick Williams, Natalya Romaniw - photo Mark Douet
Tchaikvosky Eugene Onegin; Roderick Williams, Natalya Romaniw, Oleksiy Palchykov, Brindley Sherratt, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson, dir: Michael Boyd, cond: Douglas Boyd; Garsington Opera at Wormsley
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 03 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Realism, emotion and some remarkably assumptions: the season opens at Garsington

Distinguished theatre director Michael Boyd's first operatic outing was his brilliant re-invention of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo for the Royal Opera at the Roundhouse in 2015, so what he did next was always going to rouse interest. This turned out to be the new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin which opened the 2016 Garsington Opera season at Wormsley on 3 June 2016. It was an evening full of anticipation, because the casting included two interesting role debutants with Roderick Williams as Onegin, and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, plus Jurgita Adamonyté, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson, Oleksiy Palchykov, Mark Wilde, and Brindley Sherratt, with Douglas Boyd (Garsington's artistic director) conducting the Garsington Opera Orchestra. The designs were by Tom Piper, with Liz Ranken as movement director/choreographer and Lina Johansson as acrobatic choreographer.

Michael Boyd's production was firmly set in the era of Pushkin's story; Tom Piper's costumes were authentically early 19th century (the story was written 1825 to 1833). The production was one where hats, gloves and manners were highly important, something which can get forgotten when thinking just about Tchaikovsky's seethingly dramatic music, but Michael Boyd rightly put the inner emotions in the context of a culture of outward control, going on to explore what happens when this control breaks. But, perhaps the most important thing to say about the production was the way it used communal dance as an important factor. The cotillon at Madame Larina's dance was a real communal moment with everyone taking part: dancers, chorus and the older supers (Community Actors). Similarly the Polonaise at Prince Gremin's ball was real communal moment (albeit in a different, grander style).

Not that things were slavishly naturalistic, Piper's sets consisted simply of five mobile units which were moved around to form a single backdrop, or to enclose a smaller space. For the first half (Act One, and Act Two, Scene One) we simply saw plain wooden tongue- and groove cladding and doors, evoking the simplicity of Madame Larina's house, for the duel scene, the rear of the units was on display giving a starkly abstract wooden construction as backdrop, whilst for Prince Gremin's palace we simply had huge mirrors, echoing the image of constantly being on show and the sense of Onegin's constant looking over his past.
Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Jurgita Adamonytė, Oleksiy Palchykov, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson - photo Mark Douet
Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Jurgita Adamonytė, Oleksiy Palchykov, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson - photo Mark Douet

Similarly the production style moved in and out of naturalism, with Natalya Romaniw's Tatyana mounting the scenery to overlook proceedings (something repeated in the final scene of the opera when ball-goers did the same), the way Lensky (at Madame Larina's) and Tatyana (at Prince Gremin's ball) were singled out as stationary objects at the centre of the dance, the handling of the chorus in the ball scene where they became threatening onlookers. The scene after Tatyana's letter scene saw the female chorus interacting with Tatyana almost as an extension of her thoughts, as they dressed her for the encounter with Onegin. And in the climactic final scene, the chorus broke through the walls of the room to threaten Onegin. Much of the movement of the scenery and props was done by the cast themselves, and Kathleen Wilkinson's Filippyevna brought a real sense of character to the way she fetched and carried.

Roderick Williams was a remarkable assumption. The singer turned 50 last year, and this might seem a little late to take on Onegin but he gave no sense of this. It was a thoughtful performance, one completely in tune with the way Michael Boyd emphasised the restrictions of manners and arranged marriages on the characters. This wasn't the most arrogant of Onegins, or the most self-absorbed, instead it was a very human performance. For the first half of the opera we see Onegin very much through Tatyana's eyes, and here Williams was all correct politeness, with a feeling of someone finding it easier to hide behind the facade of manners. Even in their encounter after the letter scene, it was the correct politeness with which Williams' Onegin treated Romaniw's passionate yet naive Tatyana that shocked,  complete with details such as him leaning down to check (very politely) that Tatyana had understood.

Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Natalya Romaniw - photo Mark Douet
Natalya Romaniw - photo Mark Douet
But when the break came, at the end of Madame Larina's party, it was devastating as the icy control snapped. After the powerful and chilling duel scene, Michael Boyd introduced a real coup de theatre. During the opening section of the polonaise we saw Onegin's travels, but always he was accompanied by the ghost of Lensky, with Oleksy Palchykov even donning dress and wig to dance with Onegin at Prince Gremin's ball. Rarely has the combination of director and singer made Onegin's opening solo at the ball, sung directly to the audience (the first time we really hear his thoughts) count for so much.

Natalya Romaniw created a strikingly thoughtful Tatyana, one who clearly withdrew from society and whose calm exterior masked the emotions inside. Romaniw had mastered the art of doing less on stage, but doing to highly expressively so that little counted for much, and she has a very speaking countenance where every emotion flickered across her face. She has a wonderful lyrical dramatic voice, one that is probably going to grow, and brought a real sense of vibrant passion to Tatyana. Her performances in both time periods (there is a gap of six years between Acts One and Two and Act Three), were linked by this sense of groundedness with the older Tatyana simply losing some of the naivety of the younger. This was an enormously sympathetic, almost ensemble performance, but one where you constantly felt Tatyana's presence, whether singing or not, without ever pulling focus. The letter scene was superbly sung, and brilliantly conceived with a great feel for the architecture. That Romaniw does not, yet, quite pull the heart strings to the ultimate is no worry, this was a performance that can only grow and remarkably mature assumption for this young artist.

I have to confess that when I heard him in Act One, I rather worried about the way Oleksiy Palchykov seemed to push his voice to hardness in the upper register, and rarely seemed to relax as an actor. But Michael Boyd cunning used this stiffness, so that in the party at Madame Larina's Palchykov's Lensky wasn't the puppyish poet, but seemed to stiffen with resentment and jealously until breaking point. His account of the duel scene fairly crackled, and in his solo he showed himself to be a superbly thoughtful artist, and I particularly loved the way he was able to thin his voice right down. The final duet with Roderick Williams was everything you might expect, stiff, rigid and uptight yet shot through with intense regret and emotion.

Jurgita Adamonyté made a lively, carefree Olga, and one who formed a lovely foil to Natalya Romaniw, with the two making a superbly balanced and complementary duet.

Louise Winter's Madame Larina was very much the lynch-pin of the first half. She was clearly channelling Imelda Staunton in a big way, bringing that actor's wonderful sense of comedy and pathos to a woman who was clearly inhabiting the rules as a last resort against chaos, with a fussily busy manner which was at once funny and sad. Winter made you understand the rigid obsession with manner, and the way it made the dramatic events almost inevitable as something has to crack. Equally important was Kathleen Wilkinson's Filippyevna, her body language making clear her years of devotion and service. This was clearly not a rich household, Filippyevna spent quite a lot of time moving just a few chairs around for those she served, and the jam making was a very humble affair with Filippyevna calmly peeling apples.

Eugene Onegin - Garsington Opera 2016 - Roderick Williams, Oleksiy Palchykov - photo Mark Douet
Roderick Williams, Oleksiy Palchykov
photo Mark Douet
Brindley Sherratt brought great sympathy and great resonance to his solo as Prince Gremin. There were no novelties, and no shocks, simply a superbly musical performance done in the context of a very fine dramatic performance.

The smaller roles were all strongly taken. Mark Wilde was hilarious as the pompous Monsieur Triquet, and I loved the way the chorus stood behind him, laughing at him and echoing his gestures.
Adam Temple-Smith was a peasant, Martin Häßler was a Captain, Andrew Tipple was Zaretsky and Adam Torrance was Guillot.

The production took full advantage of the young and talented chorus, who had a great deal to do besides just sing. They effectively created separate characters, with a great deal of both communal dancing and more general movement. They both looked and sounded good, a testament to the hard work and preparation for the season.

I have to confess that I was less convinced by the choreography for the dancers. The acrobatic vignettes, during Onegin's journeys between scenes one and two in Act three, were highly effective, but elsewhere the choreography for the six dancers was simply too fussy for my taste.

The orchestra under Douglas Boyd made gave a wonderfully lyrical account of the score. Lithe and
passionate, the performance was beautifully fluid but focussed and controlled, so that under Douglas Boyd's disciplined hands the passion was there but the orchestra never came anywhere near overwhelming the singers.

This was a superb season opener, and a demonstration of how Garsington Opera has moved on from being an outstanding specialist in a couple of composers, into a house where immensely thoughtful highly crafted work is being done in all areas. This season there is Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, Mozart's Idomeneo and Haydn's The Creation to look forward to, with the prospect of Handel's Semele and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande next year.

There is also a chance to hear and see the production of Eugene Onegin outside of Garsington, as the production will be screened in rural coastal areas including Skegness, Ramsgate, Burnham-on-sea, Grimbsy, see for full details.

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