tue 12/12/2017

Eugene Onegin, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Eugene Onegin, English National Opera

Eugene Onegin, English National Opera

Tchaikovsky's truthfulness is blurred in Deborah Warner's surprisingly traditional production, though the tenor shines

Too much, too late: Audun Iversen's Onegin and Amanda Echalaz's Tatyana fire up to a strong final duetAll images for ENO by Neil Libbert

What’s not to love about Tchaikovsky’s candid, lyric scenes drawn from Pushkin’s masterly verse novel? ENO’s advance publicity summed it up neatly by promising “lost love, tragedy, regret”. We’ve most of us been there. That does mean that truthfulness to life can count for even more in a performance than good singing. Both burned their way through Dmitri Tcherniakov’s radical Bolshoi rethink, but while there are four fine voices to help Deborah Warner’s surprisingly traditional production along, the truth flickers very faintly here.

Warner updates the action, but by less than a century: prematurely world-weary Onegin uncertainly rejects teenage Tatyana – though not unconditionally or meanly in this staging - and falls in love with her too late, not in the Russia of Nicholas I, Pushkin and the early-Romantic painters but against a backdrop Chekhov and Repin would partly have recognised. The realism also means the kind of long pauses between the scenes of each act that we thought had gone out with the bad old days of the Kirov. Atmospheric images of Russian nature in country and city by designer Tom Pye along with the video team of ENO stalwart Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway aren’t quite the substitute for the musical-dramatic continuity we so badly need.

It’s a surprise when Echalaz and Iversen do finally fire up to a grand final duet in the freezing cold

The crucial human heartbeat is, in any case, a faltering one. Edward Gardner’s conducting goes hand in glove with Amanda Echalaz’s Tatyana; both are polished and cleanly profiled but lacking in the seeming spontaneity which should give the leisurely, pastoral first act its kick. Gardner is good on detail, like the quickening of sister Olga's impatience with her suitor and a sorrowful woodwind sympathy for that suitor's later tragic withdrawal; but he sometimes gets a burnished ENO Orchestra to play the emotions too big and solid.

Echalaz’s large-scale performance disappoints after her magnificent and credible ENO Tosca. Somehow she never touches the heart like house predecessors Cathryn Pope, with her doll-like fragility, or the much more believably impetuous Orla Boylan, and this Tatyana's transformation to outwardly poised society lady is less impressive than usual. The big and somewhat static delivery is as fatal to the intimacy of the letter scene as is the vast barn in which Tatyana’s bedroom vigil as well as the tea laid out for her mother and nurse seem to take place. There’s the right contrast between interior reflection and outdoor liberation, but too much gets lost here and the peasant rituals seem rather grand and stylised for the relatively modest Larins.

Toby Spence as Lensky in the ENO production of Eugene OneginOddly, their bourgeois complacency is shaken not so much by Audun Iversen’s Onegin, the attractive stranger from the nearby estate figuring as the usual cipher in the first scene, but by Toby Spence’s Lensky (pictured right), taking everyone aback with his frank pursuit of the pretty but ordinary sister Olga (Claudia Huckle, serviceable). Spence’s almost dangerous energy sets the stage alight, and he sings his first lyric aria as freely and beautifully as I’ve ever heard it.

It's hardly surprising, then, that Act II, Lensky’s territory, works best, though Spence seems encouraged to play his wrath at his best pal's mischief-making a bit theatrically. He manages some of the only magical soft singing of the evening – the other comes, somewhat bizarrely, from Adrian Thompson’s French tutor getting carried away by verses for Tatyana’s nameday – in the most evocatively designed scene of the seven, for the duel by a frozen lake, and Martin Pickard’s fresh translation drives home the point, which is the pointlessness, of this messy, fatal conflict between friends.

Brindley  Sherratt's Prince Gremin between Amanda Echalaz's Tatyana and Audun Iversen's Onegin in the ENO production of Eugene OneginCome the shift to St Petersburg, and the hall of columns won a round of provincial applause on the first night; but the crucial distinction here, between what should be a now slightly off-the-wall social-misfit Onegin and frigid court society, gets lost when both seem on such good terms, and, lively as Kim Brandstrup’s choreography is throughout, it was odd of Warner to go for the show-offy ecossaise of Tchaikovsky’s grand revision rather than the dramatic continuity of his original. Brindley Sherratt’s straightforward husband-prince (pictured above between Echalaz and Iversen) sings with the expected gravitas, but it’s a surprise when Echalaz and Iversen do finally fire up to a grand final duet in the freezing cold. Too much too late, the motto of Pushkin’s story and Tchaikovsky’s opera, might also be the epitaph of this indecisive production. The Met, sharing honours with ENO, may well be shocked to have it replace the much clearer Robert Carsen narrative which has ruled there quite happily for some time. Given the attempt at a naturalistic vision here, truthful clarity in the characters' motivations is what’s most in short supply.

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