Good but Uneven Onegin Comes to Life Eventually

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Evgeny Onegin: Soloists and Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, Alexander Polianichko (conductor), Holland Park, London, 13.7.2012 . (GDn)


Onegin: Mark Stone
Tatyana: Anna Leese
Lensky: Peter Auty
Olga: Hannah Pedley
Madame Larina: Anne Mason
Prince Gremin: Graeme Broadbent
Filippyevna: Elizabeth Sikora
Triquet: Gareth Dafydd
Moriss Zaretsky/Captain: Barnaby Rea


Director: Daniel Slater
Designer: Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan
Choreographer: Denni Sayers

Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin is treated to a gentle re-imagining in this new production at Holland Park. Director Daniel Slater throws in a handful of clever ideas to contextualise the drama and to suggest some deeper psychology. His interventions get more radical as the evening progresses, and for some reason the musical standards at this first night performance followed suit, with both the music and drama becoming more convincing as the evening progressed.

The unfortunate result is that there is a lot of mediocrity to sit through before this Onegin really comes to life. The performance began with a less than promising prelude. Those swooning string figures in the opening bars had to compete against a wide range of noises-off from the park, and the tiny string section (how can you perform Onegin with only two cellos?) wholly failed to set the mood. The musical coordination was also shaky for the first scene or so, and the incoherent opening ensemble from the four leads was a worrying omen of what was to follow.

Perhaps this was just first night jitters though, as the standards soon improved, with each of the lead singers becoming more and more convincing, both musically and dramatically. Director Daniel Slater sets the first two acts in a decaying aristocratic environment of late 19th/early 20th century Russia. It’s more Chekhov than Pushkin but it works well enough. Slater ensures that the singers always act; the drama is always engaged, and usually engaging, although the sheer weight of detail can occasionally make the interactions seem clumsy.

For his first big idea, Slater has the silent figures of the mature Onegin and Tatyana stalking their younger selves throughout this first act. Combined with the decayed opulence of the scenery and the often nostalgic music, this places the action of the first act squarely in the past tense. Otherwise, the interpretative interventions in the first two acts are minimal. There is an interesting piece of choreography after the letter scene, in which the ladies of the chorus all briefly become Tatyanas, all swarming around Onegin, each offering him a letter. But Slater doesn’t mess with the set-pieces, giving fairly traditional accounts of the letter scene and the duel, both of which are presented with an impressive sense of atmosphere.

The cast is mostly young, but most of the singers have the vocal maturity to inhabit their respective roles. Tatyana and Olga are certainly convincing when played by the young singers Anna Leese and Hannah Pedley. It takes a greater stretch of the imagination to see the equally young Mark Stone and Peter Auty as Onegin and Lensky, but they just about pull it off.

Top musical honours go to Anna Leese, whose performance as Tatyana is worth coming out to West London for on its own. The richness and timbral complexity of her voice makes her performance endlessly fascinating. And she’s got a real knack for presenting the drama of the story in her singing, a rare gift indeed. That said, she has a tendency to go sharp at the top, and she doesn’t support the ends of longer phrases as well as she might, a failing Tchaikovsky’s music highlights. Even so, she remains this company’s greatest asset. There was no danger of Hannah Pedley stealing the show from her, although Pedley’s Olga had the clearest diction of any of the roles.

Mark Stone presents Onegin as a complex and not very likeable character, although it took him until the last act to really inhabit the role. Peter Auty plays Lensky for laughs in the first act, allowing some character development leading into his more angst-ridden role in the second. Both could do with another ten years or so to develop the richness in the lower register that give those characters their authority. Similarly with Graeme Broadbent in the role of Gremin – he’s basso yes, but profundo no. Hearing this lightweight rendition of the Prince in Act Three highlighted the fact that their wasn’t a single Russian singer in the cast, an unusual situation for any Onegin.

There was a Russian on the podium though, and Alexander Polianichko has more experience with this score than anybody else involved. He gave a passionate but ordered account, and after the orchestra had settled down around the middle of the first act, he was able to deliver a thoroughly Russian sound from the pit.

The reason for the Chekov-era setting of Acts 1 and 2 become clear at the start of the third, where it transpired that the five years that Onegin had spent abroad had spanned the Revolution. That’s a clever ploy on a number of levels, the most obvious being the iconography it provides for this last act, all proletarian uniforms and Revolutionary posters (the big face of Lenin in the wardrobe was taking things a bit far though). ‘Prince’ Gremin is now a captain in the Soviet army, with Tatyana his devoted bride, and Onegin a White Russian out of step with the new order. In terms of the narrative, this allows the director to make sense of Tatyana’s devotion to her new husband – as a symptom of revolutionary fervour rather than continuing naivety. All in all the revolutionary thing is a great idea, and it doesn’t seriously grate against the libretto either.

Daniel Slater’s interpretive ideas are strongly weighted towards the end of the work, with even the theme of remembrance in the first act making the crucial drama there into a mere prelude for what is to come. This dramatic trajectory is at odds with Tchaikovsky’s (let alone Pushkin’s) symmetrical and evenly balanced narrative. If the musical standards had been even throughout, this device might have worked better, but when combined with the ensemble problems in the first act, the overall impression was that the start of the opera was being effectively written off in favour of the more imaginatively staged conclusion.

A good Onegin then, but an uneven one. Musically, a larger orchestra and a few more mature singers could have improved matters. Dramatically, the interpretation convinces because every interaction in the story is acknowledged, and many are explored in detail. Just enough new ideas are added in to allow us to take a fresh look at the story, and without it changing beyond recognition. But it takes a long time to get going, and the first act does feel like a wasted opportunity, especially in comparison with the many musical and dramatic insights that follow.

Gavin Dixon