Saturday 19 November 2011

Eugene Onegin at the London Coliseum

The problem  with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is to make the final scenes belong to the same opera as the opening ones. From the duel scene onward, the drama almost runs itself, most Onegins and Tatyanas find the characters' older incarnations easier, their final passionate encounter is the one that usually works. Deborah Warner and her designers (Tom Pye, sets, and Chole Obolensky, costumes) emphasised this divide in their new production of the opera for ENO (seen Friday 18th November). The duel scene was set in a spectacular stylised landscape, mirrored floor, white and mirrored walls, with a little snow and bare trees. This basic set, with the addition of some spectacular columns at the front of the stage, formed the setting for the St. Petersburg scenes; stylish, stylised, simple and not a little spectacular and the setting for some powerful performances.

But earlier on in the opera, Warner relied on naturalism to create the Larina's estate, though as Act 1 progressed we came to realise that it was a kind of Hovis realism. And at the centre of this should be the youthful passion of Tatyana, but Amanda Echalaz's  performance, though moving and passionate, failed to convince as the impressionable young girl. Despite an impressive dramatic manner where she did indeed capture the right body language, she was let down by the wonderful richness of her voice; this Tatyana just sounded far too mature. Of course, this maturity can count in the letter scene; taken out of context the scene was superbly done and revealed Echalaz to be a fine dramatic actress; it just didn't feel like a young girl.

This is a common problem with the opera; I've lost count of the reviews I've read which say that a particular singer's Tatyana was fine in the last act but less convincing in the first. Perhaps, in this post-Callas era, we don't make the sort of youthful sounding passionate voices any more. I have to confess that I have only really seen one performance where the soprano managed to trick properly, this was many years ago at the Royal Opera House where Gabriela Benackova gave a performance which was notable for the intensity of youthful passion she brought to the the first 4 scenes in the opera.

The first act was played with detailed naturalism by a very strong cast in Tom Pye's single set, a huge barn-like structure which seemed to be attached to the Larina's house. There was no garden, just a view of the yard outside when the barn-doors were open. For some reason, Tatyana slept here and her confrontation with Onegin was here also. I began to suspect that the look of the production was dictated more by the needs of having a single spectacular set for the whole act (for economic reasons), rather than from the dramatic need that Tatyana indeed be sleeping outside. The production is a co-production with the Met in New York and the cynical side of me suggests that the production values had to cope with the expectation that the Met have a spectacular setting. I suspect that Met audiences would in fact normally expect a different, handsome-looking, setting for each scene and that if ENO had been going it alone we would have had a less substantial but more flexible setting.

This wasn't a serious problem, but just nagged away, it seemed as if Warner was only intermittently interested in being true to the libretto; Toby Spence's Lensky went into raptures about a non-existent garden; Echalaz's Tatyana threw about furniture in a way which suggested, in the context of the surrounding naturalism, that she was indeed rather disturbed; during the dance at Madame Larina's in Act 2, the entire staff (including the chef) seemed to be dancing at the ball; in Act 3 Tatyana was present when Prince Gremin (Brindley Sherratt) sang his aria and he seemed to be singing it to Tatyana rather than Audun Iverson's Onegin (who hardly seemed to be paying attention); and the dancing at the Act 3 ball seemed entirely restricted to the professional dancers.

For me, the best productions use the dance as an additional element of the drama, both at Madame Larina's and in St. Petersburg; but Warner didn't really do this, dance was there as entertainment and nothing else. But having much of it danced by the professional dancers rather than chorus, she minimised its dramatic impact. The dance during the peasants choruses in Act 1 was solely confined to 3 professionals and was far too elaborate; the choreographer (Kim Brandstrup) showing off rather than producing something suitable to go with Tchaikovsky's folk-like choruses.

All this rather took the mind off the performances, which was a shame because they were very strong. Echalaz's Tatyana was superbly dramatic and, as I have said, she gave a creditable and impassioned account of the letter scene, she just sounded too old. But of course, that meant that when we got to St. Petersburg she was in her element and show what a fine dramatic actress this singer is becoming. I do hope that ENO next give her something to get her teeth into.

About Audun Iversen's Onegin I was a little conflicted; he has a fine, bright baritone voice which he uses intelligently and sounded just right. But dramatically he was a little dull. In Act 1 he seemed more of a bank-manger-ish safe bet, rather than a broodingly interesting presence. At the Larina's dance he seemed not quite other enough. But he came alive in the St. Petersburg scenes, showing what a fine dramatic singer he can be. For me Onegin needs to exude an element of interesting otherness, a sense of difference and perhaps a feeling of brooding intensity; you didn't feel that there was anything in this Onegin that could really fascinate and infatuate the youthful Tatyana.

This, of course, rather threw Toby Spence's Lensky into relief. Spence was very fine indeed in this role, performing Act 1 with a sort of puppyish enthusiasm and charm which made his descent into manic jealously quite believable. An then the duel scene, here Spence was quite, quite superb. He delivered the aria in a beautifully controlled, yet intense fashion, daring to sing incredibly quietly. Though it was show-piece he never grandstanded and this continued into the fine duet which preceded the duel itself.

The supporting characters were all cast from strength with Diana Montague as Madame Larina, rather less scatty than she is sometimes portrayed, a lovely sympathetic portrait, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Filippyevna also providing sympathetic support and an unhackneyed portrayal of the old nurse. Claudia Huckle was a charmingly bubbly Olga, blending nicely with Echalaz in the Act 1 duet.

The role of Prince Gremin is a gift to the right singer, and Brindley Sherratt grasped it with both hands, giving as fine an account of the aria as I have heard, sung with a rich, resonant voice which went all the way down to the bottom.  David Stout was  admirable in the small role of Zaretsky.

The opera was sung in a translation by Martin Pickard which used rhyming verse, something which at times was a little too noticeable. I still have fond memories of David Pountney's translation.

Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were all on fine form, giving us some fine impassioned music, all well paced by Gardner. Tchaikovsky gives both the orchestra and the chorus moments in the spotlight and they did not disappoint. Gardner's dramatic handling of the piece was impressive.

I came away from the performance wondering whether Warner might have been more comfortable if she could have delivered a less naturalistic, more expressionistic production. That said, she, Gardner and the cast created a fine, dramatic evening and I certainly hope to see the production again at the Coliseum; there are plenty of fine young baritones who ENO ought to consider for the title role.

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