Wednesday 1 June 2022

Emotional atmospheres: a wonderfully lucid production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin opens Opera Holland Park's 2022 season

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin; Samuel Dale Johnson, Anush Hovhannisyan, Thomas Atkins, Emma  Stannard, director: Julia Burbach, conductor: Lada Valešová, City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park

An engaging young cast in a wonderfully lucid account of Tchaikovky's lyric scenes that used the stage to its utmost and illuminated both characters' thoughts and actions 

The 2022 Opera Holland Park season opened with a production of Eugene Onegin originally scheduled for 2020. Then, the Young Artist performance was due to be conducted by Lada Valešová, but since that cancellation she showed her conducting chops at the 2021 Young Artist performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro [see my review] as well as conducting Eugene Onegin in West Green House Opera's 2021 season [see my interview with Lada]. Julia Burbach, who directed Eugene Onegin, was in charge of last year's production of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz [see my review], as well as Wagner's The Valkyrie at the 2021 Grimeborn Festival [see my review], both of these productions created in response to the prevailing pandemic [see my interview with Julia]. So, this new production has quite a long history, but Burbach and Valešová's Lucid account of the work certainly stood up on its own terms, from the first notes were were drawn into the story.

We caught the opening night of Opera Holland Park's season, 31 May 2022, when Julia Burbach's new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin featured Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin, Anush Hovhannisyan as Tatyana and Thomas Atkins as Lensky and Emma Stannard as Olga, with Amanda Roocroft, Kathleen Wilkinson and Matthew Stiff. Lada Valešová conducted the City of London Sinfonia.  Designs were by takis, lighting by Robert Price and choreography by Jo Meredith.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Anush Hovhannisyan, Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Anush Hovhannisyan, Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Ali Wright)

The casting meant that the four protagonists were sung by singers young enough to be believable as the young people of the tale; it is important to remember that Onegin and Tatyana, Lensky and Olga are young, their responses heightened and over intense, and the five-year gap between the fifth and seventh scene makes an important point.

The theatre layout is very similar to last year, with a thrust fore-stage in front of the orchestra enabling action to be brought closer but also presenting a logistical challenge. In the auditorium, there are still real seats though the number is up from last year. The results are intriguingly attractive and ensure that the audience is always close to the performance. For a semi-outdoor space, the theatre at Opera Holland Park makes for remarkably intimate theatre, again an advantage and a challenge. The advantage of this closeness was demonstrated by Amanda Roocroft as Madame Larina in the first scene, when a momentary expression of annoyance and pain passed over her face before she set her features into a smile and went to greet the chorus of peasants. A small, but telling moment.

Takis' designs were suitably period and classic. The set was a single neo-classical structure all doors and pillars, that could be moved and re-configured so that throughout the performance the setting metamorphosed in response to the emotional atmosphere. There was perhaps a little too much demonstrating emotion by opening or closing doors, going in or out of doors and the banging thereof. But overall, the result was suitably period without being slavish; the men were in the right sort of coat and breeches, wore top hats for Larina's party but there was no glove for Lensky to throw down at the duel.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Thomas Atkins, Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)*
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Thomas Atkins, Samuel Dale Johnson - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)*

Burbach's production seemed to be as interested in what the characters were thinking as much as what they were saying (singing). This was demonstrated not only by having frozen moments of ensemble, but by bringing characters back in non-singing moments during other scenes of the opera. At its best this served to highlight some of the emotional undercurrents of the piece, however some moments verged on the distracting. It seemed a tad untrusting of either the piece or the performers to need to demonstrate this extra.

In the opening prelude we saw Dale Johnson's Onegin as he appeared in Tatyana's mind, setting up her obsession, but in the letter scene he reappeared thus making Hovhannisyan's Tatyana sing much of the scene to Dale Johnson's mute but sympathetic Onegin. It was Dale Johnson that we saw first at the opening of the duel scene and for much of this scene, so during Thomas Atkins' fine account of Lensky's aria, Onegin was prowling round. And of course, Lensky did not stay dead, he was haunting Onegin for much of the opening of the ball scene, so that the Polonaise became an piece of dramatic theatre rather than a simple dance, whilst Matthew Stiff sang Prince Gremin's aria, we saw Onegin passionately imploring Tatyana, thus prefiguring the following scene.  Some of these ideas worked, others didn't and at times the production felt over busy. Having the interval after Larina's ball meant that effectively, we experienced the first half from Tatyana's point of view and the second from Onegin's.

From the outset Anush Hovhannisyan was a characterful and self-absorbed Tatyana. Hovhannisyan has an attractively Slavic edge to her voice which lent Tatyana personality, yet Hovhannisyan also captured the way she drifted away from events. The letter scene was finely done, with Hovhannisyan creating some real intensity but frankly, I felt that it weakened the dramatic impact by having Samuel Dale Johnson's Onegin there as recipient. He might only by in Tatyana's imagination, but his physical presence on stage softened some of the scene and removed the desperation. By the time of Larina's ball, Hovhannisyan's Tatyana became increasingly detached from society as a result of Onegin's behaviour, and whilst she does not get that much to sing here, Hovhannisyan's body language conveyed much. This continued in the final two scenes, when the change in Tatyana was made manifest, and this Tatyana remained very much in charge during the torrid final scene.

Samuel Dale Johnson certainly had the right look for the role, and his first entry stalking through Larina's house was very striking. Throughout the opera Dale Johnson held both the eye and the ear, and made you realise why the character caused so much chaos around him. But for the first three scenes, his impact was perhaps a little too involved with the other characters and sympathetic, Dale Johnson came over as a somewhat stiff character rather than the city sophisticate who feels himself above all these events. And having been the sympathetic, if mute, recipient of Tatyana's outpourings in the letter scene made it hard work for Dale Johnson to be so lofty and unforgiving in the subsequent scene. Only at the very end did Dale Johnson seem to crush Hovhannisyan's Tatyana in the right way. He was finely abandoned in Larina's ball scene, and the moments of introspection and regret really counterpointed his deliberately bad-boy behaviour. This continued into the duel scene, where his prowling around at the opening very much set the scene for Onegin's clear regret. Musically, the duet between the protagonists was one of the highlights, leading to a strong final scenes where the emotions finally bubble over, and we no longer needed mute demonstrations.

Thomas Atkins gave a finely sung account of Lensky, creating a highly civilised yet passionate young man who is overcome and bewildered by his friends behaviour. Atkins and Emma Stannard's Olga created fine moments of shared intimacy and a highly believable relationship, forming a delightful counterpoint to the other couple. During Larina's ball, Atkins became more and more still, increasingly wound up until he exploded in an outburst made all the more stunning by being sung in a controlled and intense way. This control and intensity were similarly present in his superb solo and fine final duet.

But the opera is as much about ensembles as individual solo, and throughout we got a lovely feeling for the various group dynamics as underlying emotions caused the balance of the first scene to drift. This was the context for Amanda Roocroft's wonderfully nuance Larina, a character who reacted with intensity but lacked any hint of the caricature which can beset performances. Roocroft's performance was a masterclass. She was well supported by Kathleen Wilkinson's wonderfully serious and slightly grand Filippyevna, more companion than nanny.

There was no jam making, the wonderful quartet in the first scene took place in the context of tea (with Wilkinson's Filippyevna joining in rather than waiting on the others). Another adjustment in the first scene was that there were no peasants, instead a chorus of Tatyana's friends. Much of their contribution was off stage, and then we had charades rather than a communal dance. Whilst both of these worked dramatically, the result was to play down the specifically Russian ambience of the setting and render it more generic. In an interesting article in the programme book, Philip Ross Bullock reflected on the links between Jane Austen's Pride and Predjudice and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and the scene setting details of the production were such that they could easily have fitted Austen's work.

Despite an element of upstaging in the production, Matthew Stiff gave us a finely dignified account of Prince Gremin's aria, making it clear that whilst the younger lovers might not get their happy ending, the opera does provide an element of satisfaction for the older generation.

This was a production that used dance as part of the drama, as was intended. Whilst we lacked the peasants' dance in the first scene, Larina's ball was full of dancing with the chorus working hard to make dance part of the general dramatic scene. For the ball in St Petersburg, the opening Polonaise was used to create a dance drama displaying Onegin's regret and shame at killing Lensky. The chorus were really put through their paces here combining dance with intensely dramatic moments, though the costuming seemed to suggest they were refugees from a production of Ruddigore.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)*
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - chorus - Opera Holland Park, 2022 (Photo Lidia Crisafulli)

The production used no extra dancers, the chorus sang and danced their way through the evening, giving us some terrific ensembles and populating the drama with lots of details. The smaller characters were well taken with Joseph Buckmaster as Triquet, and Konrad Jaromin as Zaretsky and the Captain.

In the pit Lada Valešová drew finely detailed playing from the City of London Sinfonia, her regard for the work showing in the care she lavished on every moment. This was a performance where Tchaikovsky's orchestration counted for a lot and there were plenty of instrumental contributions to enjoy. Perhaps occasionally Valešová lavished a bit too much care, and we wanted some of the ensemble moments to move on rather more. The staging, using the fore-stage for some of the vocal ensembles, caused a few hiccups in ensemble between pit and stage but these will no doubt settle.

Burbach's production could not have been made for anywhere other than Opera Holland Park and it cleverly took full advantage of the theatre space without ever really bumping against its disadvantages. The case were all wonderfully engaged and engaging, we really cared about these people, and whilst I found the production slightly over-busy, there was never any about about who and what was important at any given moment, and the complex emotional undercurrents were well highlighted. This was a performance that engaged those of us to whom the opera is an old friend, whilst certainly engaging those for whom it is a new experience.

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