Sunday, 13 November 2011

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

English National Opera, 12 November 2011

There were so many good things about ENO's new Onegin that I was sorry to leave the Coliseum last night feeling a little underwhelmed. Deborah Warner's production, which will make its way to the New York Met in 2013, is a handsome thing. Tom Pye's sets are lavish, often look ravishing in Jean Kalman's lighting and have an expansive, wide-screen grandeur to them. That last quality finds an equivalent in the pit where Edward Gardner coaxes some gloriously full and lyrical playing from the ENO orchestra, whose big sound filled out the orchestral climaxes wonderfully -- there was an especially fine moment as music and staging came together for a sun-rise at the end of the letter scene. For the cast, ENO have assembled some very fine voices too. But what, then, was missing? Put simply, it was any sense of identification with Tatyana and Onegin.

Part of the problem seemed to be with Pye's sets. Act 1 took place in a large barn, reproduced on stage with an exaggerated photographic realism, that seemed only to make sense for the first scene: were we supposed to believe Tatyana slept there as well? (Amanda Echalaz is shown in the barn above right.) Once we'd left the barn behind, the later sets were accommodated between mirrored side-walls and floor, and, from the Larina's house for the ball, became less straightforwardly photographic. Acts 2 and 3 therefore had something to link them -- quite effectively, as it happens -- that made the barn seem all the more unrelated.

But the sets' grandeur rather precluded the sort of intimacy the opera demands. Nor had Warner managed to work out how to negotiate the big spaces it provided; the profusion of extras we got certainly didn't provide the solution. There was too much unmotivated coming and going, I felt, and too many exchanges took place with characters at some distance from each other. There were also an awful lot of grand gestures -- falling down, flinging oneself to the floor and suddenly forgetting how to sit on a chair -- to demonstrate the kind of emotions that, it seems to me, are better portrayed by subtler means. Perhaps, though, these were a last resort for Warner to try to persuade us to believe in a central relationship that was fatally short on chemistry. For, while Audun Iversen's Onegin (above right with Toby Spence's Lensky) didn't really do much wrong, nor did he show the sort of charisma that the whole drama depends on. It is telling that he seemed better suited to the sober arguments for rejecting Tatyana in Act 1 than the reverse emotions in Act 3, despite the powerful vocalism. Similarly, there's not a great deal to fault with Amanda Echalaz's powerful singing of Tatyana's music, but nor is there much sense of genuine emotional turmoil, of the subtle interplay of feelings.

Neither was helped, I suppose, by the fact that, by contrast, Toby Spence (pictured, left, during his aria) was brilliant at making the most of Lensky's more overtly heart-on-sleeve passions, all but bringing the whole focus of the drama onto the tragedy of his death. Spence was outstanding, singing with sensitivity and sincerity and capturing the 'disposition ardent and rather quaint, an ever-enthusiastic manner of speech' of Pushkin's own description (extracts of Roger Clark's new translation were featured in the programme).

Claudia Huckle made a strong impression as Olga, Tatyana's uncomplicated sister ('always unassuming, always submissive, always as cheerful as the morning, etc.'). There was good strength in depth in the cast, too, with Brindley Sherratt popping by as a sonorous, touching Gremin and Adrian Thompson clearly having fun as M. Triquet (his French ditty, a challenge to the ENO all-English policy, was thankfully still sung in French, but with French surtitles). Diana Montague and Catherine Wyn-Rogers were Madame Larina and Filippyevna respectively.

I left reflecting on why Tatyana and, above all, Onegin are among the most difficult operatic roles to get right on stage -- it's difficult to portray melancholy and world-weariness without losing the audience's sympathy. I hope, though, that Echalaz and Iversen will relax as the run progresses and let their own dramatic instincts replace the bolted-on gestures we got last night. If they do, this could become a powerful, impressive show.

[All photos (c) Neil Libbert for ENO]

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