ENO’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has created something of a stir by departing from the house almost-tradition of postmodernist, stunningly intrusive and invariably grotesquely irrelevant presentations that began in earnest sometime last year. The set designs for this opera, by Tom Pye, and the costumes, by Chloe Obolensky, update it to the late 19th century, but that is just a nervous tic. More surprisingly, Deborah Warner’s direction of the characters and actors is so unobtrusive that one wonders if she told anyone to do anything in particular. The most sensational departure from what we normally see is that Lensky wears glasses (not sunglasses) for the duel, gently stressing his bookish otherworldliness; and one other touch, to be mentioned later.
In many other operas, Warner’s present policy would be welcome, but one of the troubles with Onegin is that some of the characters, especially the eponymous anti-hero, are so sketchily portrayed both in their music and their words that to create a plausible and involving drama they need some direction. All the more so if the performer of the role of Onegin is as bland an actor as the young Norwegian Audun Iversen. It’s usual to say that Onegin is a cold cad, who is only awoken to feeling when he returns from his years of wandering and finds, to his chagrin, that Tatyana has made a satisfactory life for herself, or seems to have. Yet his rejection of her after she has written her impassioned letter to him is the most sensible thing anyone does in the whole opera, and I have yet to see a production of this highly popular work that makes that clear, and gives Onegin sympathetic treatment.
Producers, like audiences, are fixated on the two characters with an excess of sensibility, Tatyana and Lensky. So, one has to admit, was Tchaikovsky, even while he was demonstrating that the results of such an excess are either death or suppression of feeling in the service of conventional living. He is the least likely — well, no, Wagner, Rilke, D.H. Lawrence easily beat him to it — artist to celebrate ordinary living over sustained intensity, yet that was the task he set himself in Onegin. So the odd and equivocal unsatisfactoriness of a work that is full of charm and often poignancy is inevitable.
What can easily strike one as padding, even of a very classy kind, is actually Tchaikovsky’s attempt to tip the scales in favour of compromise — a point which Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother, here superbly played by Diana Montague, is at pains to get across in the comfortable rocking of the opening scene. Prince Gremin, the placid, elderly man with whom Tatyana settles down, says he loves her ‘to distraction’, but the music of his aria suggests that his emotional range is acutely limited, and that there is a large element of delusion in his claim that she has enabled him to regain his youth. Brindley Sherratt did what he could to make the character more sympathetic than he often manages to be.
Tatyana is much more convincing, verbally, in the final scene with Onegin, when she contrasts her girlish impetuosity with the reasonable course which led her to become a Princess, though there is still plenty of urgent feeling concealed within. Unfortunately, in this final scene Tchaikovsky isn’t able to rise musically to the occasion, and Onegin merely rants while Tatyana’s music isn’t closely related to the character whom we encountered a lot earlier in the opera, and who dropped out of it for too long.
Amanda Echalaz is a fine artist, but she doesn’t convey the youthful suffering or the adult patience of Tatyana with inward conviction — or she didn’t at the second performance, though she may well improve. At the end of the rejection scene Onegin kissed her, and that was repeated, longer, as she rejected him. Those moments stood out more than they should.
The one thoroughly convincing portrayal was Toby Spence’s Lensky, more Chekhovian than Pushkinian, but then so is most of the opera. Spence looked the part, his voice is in great condition, and his pre-duel farewell to life was perhaps the most moving part of the whole work.
I have often felt, at English and particularly at English-language performances of Onegin, that the pastel-pastoral element in the work is emphasised at the expense of the rapturous anguish. Slav singers and conductors tend to make a beeline for the passion, and the more sedate parts look after themselves. Edward Gardner’s conducting was admirably precise and firm, but I wish he had raised the roof a couple of times, so that what is at present a slightly tepid account would have glowed and hurt, as Onegin should.
The invaluable Overture Opera Guides has just issued a volume on Onegin, with the Russian text transliterated, and it is helpful, concise and stimulating.