Magnificent Singing in a New Production of Eugene Onegin at Scottish Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Theatre Royal Glasgow, 27.4.2018. (GT)

Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin) & Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) (c) James Glossop

Eugene Onegin – Samuel Dale Johnson
Tatyana – Natalya Romaniw
Lensky – Peter Auty
Olga – Sioned Gwen Davies
Madame Larina – Alison Kettlewell
Filipyeva – Anne-Marie Owens
Prince Gremin – Graeme Broadbent
Monsieur Triquet – Christopher Gillett
Zaretsky – James Platt
Dancer – Eve Mutso

Director – Oliver Mears
Costumes and Set designer – Annemarie Woods
Lighting designer – Fabiana Piccioli
Choreographer – Ashley Page

It is twenty-five years since Scottish Opera staged this masterpiece by Tchaikovsky which perhaps is the most popular Russian opera. There have been diverse reasons for this neglect, as there are for most Russian operas; the lack of gifted singers who can sing in the original is one of them, that, and the training of a chorus in unfamiliar language. In recent years, this has all changed with many Russian musicians living in Scotland and indeed a revived interest in Russian music. This season has witnessed several rare Russian operas staged by Scottish Opera; notably a fine concert performance of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, still to come are Rachmaninov’s one-act operas Francesca da Rimini and Aleko next month. One would have liked this theme to continue with perhaps an exploration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, but alas next season Scottish Opera will return to box office favourites with stagings of Rigoletto and The Magic Flute.

Standards have been very high at Scottish Opera this season and certainly this new production promised much. As the producer Oliver Mears says: ‘Onegin has everything: breath-taking music, heart-rending poetry, and the drama of passionate characters who live and breathe as we do. Like an apparition from the past, once heard this beautiful opera haunts our dreams.’ Certainly, it was a coup to engage the Director of the Royal Opera House for this staging and employing a fine cast, everything seemed set for success. Romaniw was impressive in the production of Rusalka, as was Johnson as Count Almaviva a couple of seasons ago here.

Certainly, any production requires sensitivity to the music and texts from Pushkin’s novel, and this determines whether triumph will follow, or ignominious failure.

Often the success depends largely on the casting of the two central characters. In this staging, both Onegin and Tatyana were wonderfully cast, the Australian baritone’s voice was perfectly fitting, and his grasp of Russian was almost as good as a native speaker. Sadly, that could not be said for the rest of the cast, it was only through their fine characterisation that one could grasp what they were singing.

The history of this opera in Scotland goes back to 1906 when the Moody-Manners Opera Company staged it at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, following which it was not for half a century before it was heard here again when Sadler’s Wells brought it to Glasgow’s Kings Theatre with Alexander Gibson conducting. Gibson was again at the rostrum when Eugene Onegin appeared at the 1979 Edinburgh Festival in a David Pountney production for Scottish Opera. It was this staging which was revived here in 1988 again with Gibson conducting the first Russian sung version. There have been visits to the Edinburgh Festival by the Leningrad Maly Opera in 1986, and by the Bolshoi Opera in 1991.

This new staging featured throughout the interior of a country home with a back wall which also served as a screen through which images and characters would be seen throughout the three acts. The colour scheme was of dull beige, cream white and dark green, with a rather decrepit state of wear, several broken chairs, and a couch (which served for the Letter Scene) were from time to time placed around the edges of the stage. The high windows were used for entrance from the gardens, and for gusts of snow, and for the admittance and exit of Onegin’s horse.

In the opening scene, the atmosphere was created initially with complete silence when an old lady moved chairs around, and suddenly the windows burst open with snow falling into the room, and with it came Tchaikovsky’s music. Offstage the choir sang a folksong, it was clear the orchestra were too loud, and it was difficult to catch the singing of Madame Larina in her duet with Olga, this spoiled the opening scene, although the orchestral balance adjusted favourably later. It became a matter of puzzlement however, as to which language they were singing in, was it Russian or perhaps Czech? Olga’s aria ‘Ah, Tanya, Tanya’ was finely sung, however. The appearance of the villagers with Onegin on his horse was presented as if a dream, yet when he reappeared in his entrance onstage, unfortunately his steed spoiled the stage, thankfully a man was prepared to clean up the stage after the ‘accident’ which caused the biggest laughter of the evening. Was this planned as a gimmick, I wonder?

Romaniw has a fine, excellent deep soprano beautifully tuned to the Slavic tessitura, and she portrayed this tragic character throughout as if she has been singing this role all her young life. But if one looked for the star of the evening it would be the Onegin of Samuel Dale Johnson; it would be difficult to find a more persuasive portrayal of this deeply conflicting role, from suitor to womaniser and then at the close, the cast-off lover poses a challenging task. Most impressive too was the Lensky of Peter Auty, he seemed to be on top of his form, and very much like when it was so famously played by the great Russian tenor Sergei Lemeshev. Lensky’s aria to Olga ‘I love you’ was marvellously well sung. The Olga of Sioned Gwen Davies was not as impressive, she seemed a little awestruck by her part, but improved in Act II. Their duet was finely enacted. In the big Letter Scene, Tatyana was strong and powerful yet the moving of the divan forward with its blankets was a bit feeble. This scene is phenomenally difficult and demands great stamina, Romaniw has great voice in the higher notes, ‘Let me die, but first’ but sometimes faltered in the lower pitches, though this was well hidden by the emotions engendered. Her beau, Onegin displayed all the capriciousness of his part equally through his acting and voice: ‘Were I a man whom fate intended’ revealed that he is a perfect Onegin with a magnificent lyric baritone, though he turned out not to be the one she had dreamt of before.

For the opening of Act II – where Tatyana is distraught in her love for Onegin – we are shown a ‘dream scene’ in which Onegin is seen bathing naked, and she holds her arms out to him. As soon as it happens, suddenly it all disappears as if a ghostly vision, and the waltz is performed by a solo dancer with dancing behind the screen. The dance routine by the solo dancer, was awfully unrefined, more in the Russian style, than in character with the opera; was it supposed to be a folk dance, or more perhaps a lampoon? One of the highlights however was the splendid playing of the orchestra under Stuart Stratford, their clarity and musical characterisation of the richly written score was wonderfully performed. The Duel Scene was enacted well, though it was clear who was going to be shot, and it took place in the main hall of the stately home.

In the third act, we have candles lit as if we are in church and for the ball at the Gremin palace – whilst the solo dancing was well performed – the choreography for the polonaise was inept; was this supposed to be Swan Lake, or The Sleeping Beauty? Or just another caricature? Here one discovers the cause for the scarcity of Russian opera, producers in the West do not grasp the essence of Russian culture, there is a lack of understanding of the Russian soul. We find it in the orchestral music of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky; but when it comes to staging the great Russian operas, invariably it ends in failure and instead we get a parody often in poor taste.

In the final scene, we enjoyed what was one of the finest arias of the night from Graeme Broadbent as Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s husband, ‘All men surrender to love’s power’ which was equally noble and compassionate. The final duet between Onegin and Tatyana was immensely powerful and emotionally draining for everyone with some magnificent singing, both characters seemed so real. Tatyana particularly showing the loving and dutiful wife and Onegin the now the lonely nobleman lost to the world.

This was a well performed production, but it could have done without cheap gimmickry, and less parodying of a great lyrical opera.

Gregor Tassie

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