Confusing Eugene Onegin with Responsive Orchestra under Bychkov at Covent Garden

21/12/2015

Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renata Balsadonna), Dancers, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 19.12.2015. (MB)

EUGENE ONEGIN– Oksana Volkova (Olga), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Eugene Onegin)
and Nicole Car (Tatyana) (c) Bill Cooper

Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin

Cast:

Tatyana – Nicole Car
Eugene Onegin – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Young Tatyana – Emily Ranford
Mme Larina – Diana Montague
Filipyevna – Catherine Wyn Rogers
Olga – Oksana Volkova
Peasant Singer – Elliot Goldie
Young Onegin – Tom Shale-Coates
Lensky – Michael Fabiano
Monsieur Triquet – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Captain – David Shipley
Zaletsky – James Platt
Guillot – Luke Price
Prince Gremin – Ferruccio Furlanetto

Production:

Kasper Holten (director)
Mia Stensgaard (set designs)
Katrina Lindsay (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
59 Productions (video)
Signe Fabricius (choreography)

The first revival of Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin (reviewed here the first time around) brought one major advantage, undoubtedly worth the visit to Covent Garden alone, namely the conducting of Semyon Bychkov – and, of course, alongside that the playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Vocally, it was for me far more of a mixed bag, although the audience seemed wildly enthusiastic. As for the staging itself, I was less convinced than last time. There remains a good deal to have one think – presumably that was the reason for the sadly predictable display from the house’s first-night animal-noises department – but the changes made, combined with lesser acting strength, above all in the title role, sometimes makes for a confusing evening dramatically.

The central idea of memory is a good one; it is, after all, the work’s own. The bookish Tatyana receives her inspiration through recollection and the haunting of the present – or, at times, perhaps the future – by the central pair’s younger selves has considerable effect. It would have more, however, were there more dramatic commitment on Dmitri Hvorostovksy’s part; especially before the interval, he seemed content merely to stand and sing. Moreover, his ‘double’ lacks the charisma of Tatyana’s. The production offers confusion of its own; it is, for example, unclear – and not, I think, in a productive fashion – why the elder Tatyana sings the Letter Scene to her younger self. Would it not make more sense if singers and ‘doubles’ swapped roles as appropriate (not the actual artists, of course, but they could surely don younger and older ‘appearance’ and costumes). Memory can play tricks, but I am not sure that is the point being made here; perhaps it is, and I missed it.

More fundamentally, though, I felt more strongly than last time the loss of what is surely the underlying theme, even if involuntarily so on the composer’s part, of the opera. This is a staging whose heterosexuality would warm the heart of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps that allows greater agency on Tatyana’s part; I was especially intrigued by thinking of her writing her drama as a counterpart to the ‘masculine’ – and, rightly so, whatever the uncomprehending complaints one heard, often from people who know not their Prague from their Vienna – writing of Holten’s Don Giovanni. That is not strongly pursued, though, partly, I think, as a consequence of less dancing than first time around; the doubles are there enough to irritate, but not long enough now really to make their point fully coherent. That Tatyana is a creation of a gay man – and surely this screams from the score – there is no visual sign at all. More damagingly, though, the principal relationship in the opera, that between Onegin and Lensky, is merely that of the frightened surface. Of the homoeroticism that is less a subtext than the text of a non-ideological understanding of the work we again see nothing. So Lensky is merely jealous of Onegin’s ‘flirtation’ with Olga. That the truest and most deadly love is between the two men is entirely ignored: a retrospective step indeed. I do not think for one moment that this is intended in Russian Minister of Culture fashion, but the likes of Vladimir Medinsky would have little to argue with – which should give pause for thought.

It is, then, perhaps a little unreasonable to complain that the singers play their roles in such a way, although I am sure that there was greater psychological depth in the relationship between Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin and Pavol Breslik’s Lensky. Hvorostovsky proved a little more engaged dramatically after the interval, but wooden indeed before, although, given his recent travails, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for him. His singing was often deeply impressive vocally, but that is not necessarily enough; memories of Keenlyside were too strong for me. Mine certainly seemed to be a minority view concerning Michael Fabiano’s Lensky; he received a roar of applause both at the end and – deplorably – during the fifth scene. I could not question Fabiano’s commitment, which put that of almost everyone else to shame. However, for me, the timbre and, more important, the emoting style of his performance did not quite sound ‘right’ for the work and the character, more suited perhaps to the world of Italian verismo. It was, I have to admit, a performance very much in keeping, though, with the heteronormativity of the production; this was, as I said, a committed performance – of a lovelorn young man distraught at the loss of his girl. Nicole Car offered an attractive soprano voice as Tatyana, and acted well too; I did not, though, find a great deal of insight beyond that. Memories of Krassimira Stoyanova, as with those of her Onegin, were not effaced. Oksana Volkova was a decent enough Olga, but again without any particular individuality. The stand-out performance was for me Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s deliciously stylish Monsieur Triquet, sung with such perfect attention to words and line that I longed to hear it again. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Prince Gremin was a little rough around the vocal edges at times, but still interesting to hear. Diana Montague as Mme Larina and Catherine Wyn Rogers as Filipyevna shone as last time. The choral singing was excellent too, save – and here some of the soloists were at fault too – for a few too many discrepancies between stage and pit.

It was, however, as I started by saying, in the pit that the greatest honours lay. Bychkov had the orchestra sound – as it always does under him – as one of the greatest in the world, utterly responsive to his touch. The strings were febrile and warmly Romantic, the utter antithesis of any absurd ‘period’ affectations; the woodwind were as full of character as I have ever heard in this work. Implacable brass at full throttle might almost have been from St Petersburg. Rubato, especially the lingering at the end of phrases, was greater than one often hears, always with its own justification, always having one sit up and listen, both to savour the moment and to breathe out when the story resumed. Broader tempo variations were again well calculated, dramatically convincing. There was some breathtakingly soft playing – for instance, the ravishing sonic cushion for M. Triquet’s final lines – which could not have stood in greater, more tellingly intimate contrast with the Fatal climaxes. Bychkov understands what is and what is not ‘symphonic’ in Tchaikovsky’s score – and communicated it in what, Daniel Barenboim notwithstanding, is probably the best-conducted, certainly the most orchestrally variegated, performance of Eugene Onegin I have heard.

Mark Berry

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