Romantic Glow to Royal Academy’s Onegin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Royal Academy Opera Chorus, Royal Academy Sinfonia, Jane Glover (conductor). Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London, 11.3.2013 (MB)

Madame Larina – Anna Harvey
Tatiana – Tereza Gevorgyan
Olga – Fiona Mackay
Filipievna – Rozanna Madylus
Eugene Onegin – Ross Ramgobin
Lensky – Stephen Aviss
Monsieur Triquet – Stuart Jackson
Zaretsky – Samuel Pantcheff
Prince Gremin – Nicholas Crawley
Captain – Samuel Queen

John Ramster (director)
Adrian Linford (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

And still they come, not that I am complaining in the slightest! London has certainly not done badly for stagings of Eugene Onegin recently, and it did not do badly here either; indeed, it, or rather the performers, did very well indeed. Most of the operas I have seen at the Royal Academy of Music have been smaller scale; so far as I can recall, the only other nineteenth-century work was Béatrice et Bénédict, which of course is, by Berlioz’s standards, rather an intimate work. One might say the same of Eugene Onegin; after all, these ‘scenes’ from Pushkin were first performed at the Moscow Conservatory. But there is nevertheless a grander, for want of a better word ‘Romantic’, face to the work too – and there is ballet, or at least dance. However, any fears that a nineteenth-century opera might be biting off more than the RAM could chew were firmly banished.

Not everything was perfect, of course, but then I could say the same about any other performance I have heard. The orchestra took a while to get into its stride, noticeably more confident after the first interval. There were a good few brass fluffs early on; moreover, there were times when, with the best will in the world and even in a small theatre, the strings ( were simply too thin in tone. That said, what was perhaps rather more surprising was how, especially as time went on, a glowing Romantic tone was more fully achieved. Jane Glover ably shaped the musical action throughout, displaying flexibility and not inconsiderable passion, without neglecting the needs of her young singers. (In ‘normal’ circumstances, I have little patience with the idea of a conductor ‘supporting’ singers, which normally seems to mean holding back, but in a music school environment, matters are somewhat different.) I do not mean this to be faint praise, but Glover’s account of the score was infinitely preferable to the recent dismal showing by Robin Ticciati at the Royal Opera House.

John Ramster’s production did not provoke a great deal of thought, as Kasper Holten’s excellent ROH staging certainly had. (It clearly, unsurprisingly, passed over a great number of people’s heads, though seemed perfectly clear to me.) For a ‘traditional’ staging, however, it does its job well enough, granting the cast the opportunity not only to don nineteenth-century apparel but also successfully to follow commendably detailed stage direction. I was somewhat puzzled by what looked rather like a crown of thorns above the stage prior to St Petersburg; however, I realised, upon its disappearance, that it had been nothing so conceptually provocative, merely an indication of the countryside. There is nevertheless one particular directorial intervention at the end of the second act: following the death of Lensky, we see a calculating Olga already having moved on to the Captain from Mme Larina’s party. Victoria Newlyn’s choreography is apt and well executed, a credit both to her and to the cast.

Not least of the difficulties for the singers would have been the task of singing in Russian. (Thank goodness it was not translated!) They must all have been very well coached – Glover credited Ludmilla Andrew both for coaching and transliteration – since the results ranged from good to excellent. Perhaps Tereza Gevorgyan, the Armenian Tatiana, had an inbuilt advantage, but that did not explain her well-nigh superlative assumption of the role more generally, especially later on. Hesitance was well conveyed in stage terms during the opening scene, but the greatest triumph was in her final scene with Onegin, when a rare degree of agency was forged, making it clear that an empowered woman had turned the tables on the man who had once rejected a girl from the country. The slight – and I mean slight – metallic edge to Gevorgyan’s voice worked splendidly in cutting through and soaring above the orchestra; I hope and expect to hear more from her. Rozanna Madylus’s Filipievna, though of course a far smaller role, was at least as impressive, a full assumption, visually as well as vocally convincing, such as would have graced a major house. There was also much to admire in Anna Harvey’s eminently professional Mme Larina. Fiona Mackay’s Olga occasionally lacked depth of tone, but was well acted, indeed exuberantly so, and for the most part equally well sung.

I wondered during the first act whether the relative stiffness of Ross Ramgobin’s Onegin was deliberate or a matter of nerves. By the end of the opera, I was reasonably certain that it had been the former, for he charted an excellent dramatic course, clearly transformed by the fatal duel with Lensky. (Not for the first time, I could not help but wish that more had been made by the director of the men’s ‘romantic friendship’, a subtext so glaring that it verges upon a supertext; however, Ramster’s production was unlikely to be the place where that would happen, and so it proved.) Vocal confidence grew as the performance continued: a highly creditable performance in a difficult role. Stephen Aviss’s Lensky suffered a little by comparison. I had the impression that it was a directorial decision to stress the airs of a poet, to render them slightly ridiculous, rather than the character’s brooding Romanticism, but there might nevertheless have been greater inwardness in performance too. Stuart Jackson verily stole the show, or rather the second act, as a bumptious M Triquet. Even Zaretsky made his mark, in the excellent hands of Samuel Pantcheff, making one wish the part were more extended. Prince Gremin is a gift of a role to an established bass, but whilst sung well by Nicholas Crawley, presents a greater challenge to a younger voice, a challenge whose deepest notes were not fully surmounted. Choral singing was excellent throughout; heft, clarity, and language were equally impressive, no mean feat at all in this opera.

Mark Berry