Michael Tanner

Reason over passion

Reason over passion
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Royal College of Music

Eugene Onegin

Royal Academy of Music

This year’s London Handel Festival got under way, as usual, with an opera production at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre. Imeneo, a late opera of Handel, is unusual in several respects. While it is concerned with amorous intrigue and frustration, there is no dynastic or other political dimension, a welcome change, and one that results in the work’s lasting only two hours.

There seems, too, to be an element of self-parody: in Act III the central female character Rosmene, with whom both the chief male characters, Tirinto and Imeneo, are in love, manages to avoid responsibility for her choice between them by feigning madness, singing randomly and swooning. Once she has chosen Imeneo and told Tirinto to endure rejection calmly, the chorus of Athenians close the piece by saying that reason must take precedence over passion, the same conclusion as the lovers in Così fan tutte draw, and just as inanely irrelevant.

I saw the second performance by the first cast, and as almost always at the RCM was impressed by the high standard of singing. Tirinto, the unfavoured suitor, is probably the largest role. Written for a castrato, it was performed by Annie Fredriksson, who injected the immense amounts of coloratura she has to sing with the passion required to make them interesting (to me, no coloratura addict). If she isn’t a star in the making, I’ll give up speculating on that subject.

The cast, if not on her level, was almost uniformly good vocally, though their acting standard varied. The staging consisted of classical arches, often on the move, but the characters had become moisturiser fanatics, more eager to be pampered and massaged than anything else. Morgan Pearse in the title role arrived in dazzling drag, having been in disguise as an implausible virgin, then sported a suntan and wore designer swimming trunks. That kind of thing left me uneasy about the level of seriousness with which the director Paul Curran took any of the piece. Yet the tone is often intense, especially where Tirinto, after whom it should really be called, is concerned.

Laurence Cummings proved, as always, the most judicious of Handelians, with plenty, but not too many, of lively tempi, and with an agreeable richness of tone from the London Handel Orchestra. I’d like to see Imeneo now in a more sober production and with the same singers.

The next evening I was at the Royal Academy of Music for Eugene Onegin. One of my chief hopes was that it would obliterate the Royal Opera’s fearful recent production from my memory, and it succeeded, as indeed it succeeded in all ways (this was the first evening of the second cast). Oddly, the message of Onegin seems to be similar to that of Imeneo — hold in your passions and make a sensible go of things. Madame Larina says that at the very beginning and Tatyana follows in her mother’s footsteps to the very end, while the once-frigid Onegin rushes off in despair.

Entering the theatre for this production, an extremely intelligent one by John Ramster, we see Tatyana already too absorbed in a romantic novel, an Austen-like touch. Our Tatyana was Sara Lian Owen, mature of appearance but performing ardently, and giving an account of the Letter Song which did, as much as ever, mean that the opera’s musical climax comes dangerously early. Gareth John, her Onegin, equipped like the other men with an unflattering wig, was almost too stiff in manner, but sang well.

However, the vocal honours of the evening went unequivocally to Samuel Furness, whose performance of Lensky’s aria before the duel, a piece that can sound maudlin, was so pure in tone, so full of useless regret, that I wonder if I have ever heard it sung so finely in the theatre. After he was shot, as the curtain came down, we saw his beloved Olga kissing a captain, so that if — as I’ve sometimes been inclined to do — we worried about her, we were shown, plausibly, that we needn’t.

Ramster states in his notes that he decided early on that Pushkin’s time was the only one that makes comprehensive sense of the action and the text. The opera was sung, by the way, in Russian, and with good accents; apparently the cast had not only been tutored in pronunciation but had also learned the language, up to a point. I wonder if singing it in English wouldn’t help in the cause of diction, but I suppose learning to sing operas in the original language is now essential. The minor characters were nicely individuated, and a typical touch was that at Madame Larina’s ball, while Monsieur Triquet held attention by singing his tedious verses, an Orthodox priest took the opportunity to quaff as much punch as he could.   The opera was written, we remember, for a student body to perform. I wonder if the first performance was as good as this one.