Monday 4 January 2016

In the memory palace - Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden

Kasper Holten's production Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House © Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
The duel scene, Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House
© Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin; Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nicole Car, Diana Montague, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Oksana Volkova, Michael Fabiano, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, Ferruccio Furlanetto, cond: Semyon Bychkov, dir: Kasper Holten; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 2 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Striking but flawed production redeemed by superb performances

We missed Kasper Holten's production of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin when it was new in 2013, and finally caught up with the production on Saturday 2 January 2016 towards the end of the production's first revival with Semyon Bychkov conducting. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang Onegin, with Nicole Car as Tatyana, Diana Montague as Madame Larina, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Filipyevna, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Michael Fabiano as Lensky, Jean-Paul Fouchecourt as Monsieur Triquet and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin. Set designs were by Mia Stensgaard, costumes by Katrina Lindsay, lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel, video by 59 Productions and choreography by Signe Fabricius.

Nicole Car in Kasper Holten's production Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House © Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Nicole Car in Eugene Onegin
© Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Kasper Holten has evidently made changes to the production since its first run, but the basic premise remains the same. Holten seems fascinated by the idea of memory, and the two parts of the opera (the first five scenes up to and including the duel, and the final two scenes which take place some time later) are stitched together by having the older Tatyana and Onegin appear during the opera's prelude. Holten then tries to play the whole opera as a memory, using two dancers (Emily Ranford and Tom Shale-Coates) as the young Tatyana and young Onegin.

This is an interesting concept, and one which helps get over the fact that most singers look far older than their characters (in Pushkin's novel, Tatyana is 17, Lensky is 18 and Onegin is 26) which is one of the reasons why Tchaikovsky opted to have the work premiered by students at the Moscow Conservatoire. Holten's concept brings the production close to Stephen Sondheim's Follies (forget the showgirl tunes, the nub of the piece is the way the four main characters confront their younger selves and answer for what they have done with their lives). This doesn't work so well in Eugene Onegin because Holten is restricted to one set of singers. This means that for the first four scenes, Nicole Car had two keep flipping awkwardly from the young to the old Tatyana, and the letter scene was done in a highly fussy manner where for most of it the older Tatyana sang, whilst the younger one, Emily Ranford, 'acted'. This was repeated for the duel scene, where young Onegin (Tom Shale-Coates in a terrible, terrible wig) took part in the duel whilst Dmitri Hvorostovsky wandered round portentously but it did mean that the duet with Michael Fabiano's Lensky was sung not as a duet, but as two monologues. Of course, Lensky was another weak point in the concept because the character should have been played to look the same age as the two young dancers. (Michael Fabiano is admirably slim and young-looking, but he no longer passes for 18).

Oksana Volkova and Michael Fabiano in Kasper Holten's production Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House © Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Oksana Volkova and Michael Fabiano
© Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
During the dance at Madame Larina's it became clear that the production was moving between the real and some sort of memory space. There were moments when the lighting made the fixed set (a series of openings which could function as doors, shuttered windows or curtained of areas) look shabby and down at heel and the playing area acquired the detritus of memory, the sheaf from the peasants dance in the first scene, Tatyana's books, and this continued so we had a broken chair from the fight at Madame Larina's, the blasted tree from the duel scene and ultimately the prone body of Lensky as Michael Fabiano lay motionless throughout the two final scenes.

We lost the cotillon which concludes the dancing at Madame Larina's, the cast simply went off stage right leaving the protagonists alone. Then at the ball at Prince Gremin's it was clear we were firmly in the realm of memory. The opening grand polonaise was played as a scene in which the older Onegin watched his young self cavorting with sirens, the second dance was all social walking done in a threatening manner, and the final dance had Onegin alone on the stage.

Social dance plays and important role in Tchaikovsky's opera, and the best productions of it are those that respect this and use it creatively. The dance sequences in the opera are not ballets, they are social dances and should be used to help establish the social atmosphere and character background against which the protagonists play. Kasper Holten would perhaps argue that we only need Tchaikovsky's music and do not need to see it, but as far as I am concerned this leaves a gaping hole in the production. One which Holten never really filled. The scene during the grand polonaise, with young Onegin and the sirens was simply jejune, and the scene at the Gremin's provided little sense of Onegin being threatened and over-whelmed by society. Rather ironically this was something which was well done in the dance at Madam Larina's with the chorus at times becoming the spectres of Tatyana's imagination.

Nicole Car and Feruccio Furlanetto in Kasper Holten's production Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House © Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Nicole Car and Feruccio Furlanetto
© Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
That the production worked was down to the superb musical performances. The young Australian singer Nicole Car came close to my idea Tatyana. She sang with bright flexibility, with an underlying strength and firmness. She seemed to flit effortlessly between the young and older Tatyanas and was that rare species of singer who is able to incarnate both of them. In the first scenes, as young Tatyana, she really did look and sound young, yet in the letter scene produced a superb sense of maturity and depth to her performance. Much of the letter scene was sung directly to the audience and was searingly intense whilst remaining musical. Car has the potential to be a finely poised older Tatyana but in this production she cracks in the last scene and goes to pieces as much as Onegin.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I understand to be still under treatment for his brain tumour. showed no sign of the illness and sang with his familiar dark, firm tones. For the opening scenes he was quite restrained, and not perhaps as darkly sexy as some, but brought in very much the fact that Onegin is a dandy. You sense that Hvorostovsky knows his Pushkin. This combination of hauteur and dandyism made his put-down of Tatyana all the more devastating. The climax in the final scenes, as Onegin goes to pieces, was very well done, but lacked the shock element as we had already seen the older Onegin throughout the opera. The duet with Michael Fabiano's Lensky was profoundly moving, Holten's concept for once moving in tandem with the music and reinforcing the message.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers in Kasper Holten's production Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House © Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Catherine Wyn-Rogers
© Photograph by Bill Cooper, ROH 2015
Michael Fabiano was fine Lensky, singing with bright, Italianate tones which brought a youthful vigour to the role, and emphasised Lensky's youth and instability. In the duel scene, Fabiano sang with a superb sense of artistry and control, shading his voice right down at times in the solo. It was a very fine performance indeed, but felt a little bit too much of a performance with a sense of being too artful. Ferruccio Furlanetto made a strong Gremin, singing his aria with grave dignity and a lovely sense of line.

Oksana Volkova was a dark voiced, yet lively Olga, clearly very much a party animal. The production had Olga clearly interested in Onegin from the outset, so there were clear strains in her relations with Lensky and the break during the dance at Madame Larina's did not come out of nowhere. The opening scenes were very much strengthened by having Diana Montague and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Madame Larina and Filipyevna. Montague looked elegant, and sang with a lovely ease and flexibility, the whole creating an effortless expressivity. Wyn-Rogers bustled about wonderfully as the old retainer, but brought a nice sense of sympathy and poignancy to her scenes with Tatyana.

The smaller roles were all strongly cast. Jean-Paul Fouchecourt was almost luxury casting as Monsieur Triquet, whilst Elliot Goldie, David Shipley, James Platt and Luke Price provided strong support as a peasant singer, a captain, Zaretsky and Guillot.

In the pit Semyon Bychkov gave use everything we wanted and more. This was a lyrically passionate account of the score which still flowed beautifully and where the passion never made the music feel overblown or driven. Rarely have a heard a performance of Eugene Onegin which sounded so right.

I can understand some of the thinking behind Kasper Holten's production, but ultimately I found the closing scenes to be robbed of power by his almost over analytical approach. Thankfully the musical account of the score gave us the passion and lyrical beauty lacking in the production.

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