Lada Valešová brings out the melancholic beauty of Opera Holland Park’s Eugene Onegin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Opera Holland Park 2022 [1] – Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia / Lada Valešová (conductor). Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London, 3.6.2022 (CC)

Anush Hovhannisyan (Tatyana) and Samuel Dale Johnson (Eugene Onegin) © Ali Wright

Director – Julia Burbach
Designer – takis
Lighting designer – Robert Price
Movement director – Jo Meredith
Fight director – Bret Yount

Eugene Onegin – Samuel Dale Johnson
Tatyana – Anush Hovhanissyan
Lensky – Thomas Atkins
Olga – Emma Stannard
Madame Larina – Amanda Roocroft
Filippyevna – Kathleen Wilkinson
Prince Gremin – Matthew Stiff
Triquet – Joseph Buckmaster
Zaretsky / Captain – Konrad Jaromin

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a heartfelt tale, based on Pushkin’s verse novel. It requires a cast of the highest echelon, and a conductor who sees the piece in long breaths. Conductor Lada Valešová, a distinguished vocal coach, offered an expansive account of the score, occasionally taking the music to its limits. Allowing the music space to breathe underlines the ambition of Tchaikovsky’s score; it helps that the City of London Sinfonia seemed as one with Valešovâ’s vision. The players clearly respect her; beauty, predominantly of the melancholic kind, was everywhere; a slightly smudged opening was hastily forgotten.

The staging, by Julia Burbach, was of mixed success. I very much enjoyed and admired her Mascagni L’amico Fritz last year at Opera Holland Park, but this felt a little as if it was trying to be too clever. The appearance of Onegin in Tatyana’s ‘Letter Scene’ and, later, a deceased Lensky in the manner of Banquo’s ghost were both intriguing but a touch forced. Robert Price’s often stark lighting cast a severe aspect to character emotions, literally putting them under the spotlight; the stage itself featured a construction that morphed into different shapes, allowing for dramatic, crashing entrances and Onegin’s eavesdropping, but which felt rather awkward in manipulation. The idea of a pit orchestra with a stage that wraps around the players is maintained from many of last year’s productions, giving extra space for dramatic confrontations.

The conjuring of the hallucinogenic was a key part of this staging: Lensky’s ghost at the ball was but one instance; it seemed to ask what was real and what was not; perhaps not even love itself is real. It was a nice idea to place the interval after Scene 4 (after the Ball); it nicely emphasises the role-reversal in which, at the end of the opera, it is Tatyana who rejects Onegin. Relationships between characters are well handled, particularly the disintegration of the bond between Onegin and Lensky. Individual contributions are dominated by that of Samuel Dale Johnson’s Onegin. He is the real deal: his voice can clearly handle the heavier roles (he took on Amfortas at the Deutsche Oper earlier this year). Impassioned, with a beautifully resonant tone and impressive stage presence, it was Dale Johnson who on this occasion was the most impressive of the singers.

Thomas Atkins’s Lensky seemed to take some time to warm up during this particular performance (not the first of the run); he emerged as significantly more confident post-interval than before. It seemed to be typical of the evening, as Anush Hovhanissyan, also seemed to take a little while to hit form. When she did, she was as magnificent as we have by now come to expect, including a powerful Letter Scene. This was a Tatyana who began as bookish but grew into a strong, mature woman. Emma Stannard was a good Olga, and it was wonderful to see Amanda Roocroft bringing her experience to Madame Larina. It was bass Matthew Stiff’s Prince Gremin that of the smaller roles was by some way most impressive, though, vocally grounded and strong, perfectly cast. The Chorus of Opera Holland Park was in fine form, throwing themselves into the big numbers with some aplomb, its members as animated dramatically as they were vocally.

This is a production that is intriguing: I would very much like to see it again after a gap of a year or two. It is possibly not a production for a first viewing of Eugene Onegin, especially around the duel, but one that certainly illuminates (in both senses), asks questions and, at times, astonishes. It certainly asks us to refresh our views of Onegin, and surely that’s what opera production is all about.

One also hopes Valešová is going to become a regular guest at OHP. There is no doubt she examines her scores from the ground up, and that she inspires those around her in the most positive way possible.

Colin Clarke

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