Sun 24 Feb 2013
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin
Royal Opera House, 2013 | Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price | Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live, 20th February 2013
The very nature of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present. The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret. As such, it has the near impossible task of needing its performers to be able to express both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience through same person and - just to make it more difficult - express both positions almost simultaneously. Tchaikovsky’s remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult to achieve.
If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles in Eugene Onegin and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts. In the opera house it’s not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands. Certainly in the case of the young romantic and bookish 16-year old Tatyana, the director has the choice only of casting a younger singer who looks credible in the role but who may not be able to meet the extremely difficult singing demands, or else sacrifice credibility for a singer with the voice, maturity and the experience to make it work musically. In the days of High Definition broadcasts, the chances are that the director will opt for the former (as in the case of Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s 2012 Bavarian State Opera production with Ekaterina Scherbachenko), when the latter is what the work really needs. There is however another way, a way explored by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim for example in the 2011 production for De Nederlandse Opera, but it involves the kind of directorial playing around with the essential elements and timeline of the work that some find intrusive in what ought to be a stripped-back and intimate work.
Directing the Royal Opera House’s new production, and clearly focussing on those essential themes of love and regret, Kasper Holten has opted for an approach similar to Stefan Herheim, using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana - dancers who enact their younger selves - and having them both on the stage together in order to allow both those interlocking sentiments to play out simultaneously. As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it’s a valid idea, but it’s one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically. Holten’s direction, it has to be said, is rather less convoluted than Herheim’s all-encompassing approach that takes in aspects of the Russian temperament revealed in the work across the ages, and in that respect the Royal Opera House production works quite well while at the same time being relatively more faithful to the intentions of the composer. One can’t help but wishing however that the director (both Herheim and Holten) would just put their trust in the singer when they a Tatyana as accomplished as Krassimira Stoyanova who is capable of delivering such a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance as she does here.
And not just Stoyanova. The Royal Opera House’s production benefitted from the casting and terrific performances of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik as Onegin and Lensky. Both played these roles opposite each other in last year’s Bayerische Staatsoper production and were marvellous there. Here, unconstrained by the Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s attempts to bring out a gay subtext in their relationship (attempts it has to be said that were largely successful and certainly relevant to the composer’s own personal circumstances), they were free to concentrate on those expressions of deep emotional wounding and eternal regret. The title of the interval feature ‘Love and Regret‘ describes Kasper Holten’s focus for this production, and he couldn’t have been better assisted in getting this across than the exceptional, nuanced and deeply moving performances from the cast or from the superb account of Tchaikovsky’s majestic score from the Royal Opera House orchestra superbly conducted by Robin Ticciati.
A performance of Eugene Onegin perhaps doesn’t need anything more than that, but there were more than a few other beautiful little touches that validated the director’s approach. When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova’s moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart’s painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those simultaneous contradictory sentiments. Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret, unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled. The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn’t work quite so well. The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.
Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin. The Polonaise was more than just a beautiful interlude, but threw Keenlyside’s Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he would attempt to grasp but be unable to hold. Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seemed like everything he touched would just die in his hands. Mia Stensgaard’s set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds and lighting - was also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work. The role of the chorus - again often neglected for their dramatic contribution in favour of providing “folk” colour - were recognised here as being the social context of the work. The Royal Opera House have been criticised, with some justification, for a lack of adventure in their recent programming of revivals and some partially failed or misguided experiments (Rusalka, Robert le Diable), but when they bring together a strong cast for a thoughtful account of a major work like the 2011 Tosca or this year’s Eugene Onegin, they are simply unbeatable.