Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is an argument in favour of ordinary life, as opposed to a life ruled by passion and intensity. It’s a kind of anti-Tristan, in which Isolde decides, in the terminology of Act II of Wagner’s drama, to call it a day as far as uniting with Tristan in undying (or unliving) love goes, and to settle down with King Mark. Actually, Tristan is far more ambivalent about the bliss of love than it at first seems to be, and Onegin about the value of domesticity. The only person in Tchaikovsky’s minor masterpiece who comes off really well is Prince Gremin, and to judge from his music and the sentiments he expresses he is such a thundering bore that Tatyana must leave him or kill herself shortly after the opera ends. The trouble, or one of them, for her is that the man who rejected her in Act I and is desperate for her in Act III, Eugene himself, is a bore, too, but he is in the even less attractive category of the anguished bore. Life with him would be stormy and dull, whereas at least with Gremin Tatyana can feel as if she is being smothered in warm cotton wool.
The opera is in some respects cleverly constructed, in others it has impossible gaps, especially in characterisation, even if we bear in mind, as we are invariably told to, that it is ‘lyric scenes in three acts’ and therefore not tightly organised. But the beginning and the end are bound together, with the placid Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother, musing about the compromises of family life at the start, and Tatyana vowing to follow the same pattern at the end. The trouble is that by far the most moving music in these lyric scenes is that which depicts Tatyana’s passion, from the opening poignant bars, through the great letter scene — the premature dramatic climax of the work — and then the final scene, when Onegin takes her music as his own, because he is in just as tormented a state as she was. The next most moving music is that of the piece’s other sensitive plant, the poet Lensky, who at least is put out of his misery by being shot by his close friend Onegin, before he can pine his life away with the wholly unsuitable Olga, Tatyana’s unromantic sister. If only Lensky and Tatyana, Onegin and Olga had re-paired, they’d have had a good chance of making one another miserable in a less messy way.
The Royal Opera’s new production of Onegin has received heavy critical flak, and having been away for the first performances, I went to the fifth with trepidation, after reading of the weird effects that the director Steven Pimlott had contrived. I must say that I was surprised by the production’s normality, with one or two egregious exceptions, even to the point of wondering whether it had been modified in response to critical pressure — but that is not a conceivable outcome. Admittedly, it’s odd that the backdrop for the first scenes should be an inflated version of Flandrin’s famous homoerotic nude, which has little resonance in this work or even this production; and that the great Polonaise should accompany, not a ball, but a Courbet-style funeral — and here there were serious musical consequences, the orchestral performance of the polonaise being so lethargic and underpowered as to be sheer betrayal. These eccentricities aside, most of the production and the settings were atmospheric and even traditional, as was the portrayal of the leading figures.
The evening I went, Rolando Villaz