As much as Manon was a leitmotif last year at the Royal Opera House – with a ballet and two operas on the ill-fated beauty – this year it is Eugene Onegin that is receiving the full ballet and opera treatment. Earlier in the year the Royal Ballet’s Onegin, choreographed by John Cranko, brought to the stage Pushkin’s story; now P. I. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – in a production by current Royal Opera director Kasper Holten – comes back to it in all its ambivalence and psychological complexity.
Holten’s production was first premiered two years ago, and it was badly received back then. The use of massive yet somewhat dull scenery, only made dynamic with projections – like in, for example, Don Giovanni – and certain changes to the interpretation of the story and characters’ behaviour caught audiences by surprise. The truth is, however, that the underlying concepts behind his productions are quite interesting. In this particular case, remorse and nostalgia are the driving forces; we can see the younger selves of Onegin and Tatyana while the older ones sing, as if telling a story from the past. However, changes like the appearance of Gremin in the last scene or the overly sinister Polonaise, can for some tilt the balance slightly towards pretentiousness. In any case, the overall production looks great, and the above-mentioned ideas – together with some stylish touches – make the performance both unexpected and deeply poetic.
The star singer of this production is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who valiantly (he is mid-treatment for a brain tumour) delivers a powerful performance as Eugene Onegin, giving him an interesting severity and elegance, some two decades after his debut in the role at this venue. Australian soprano Nicole Car, who recently debuted at the Royal Opera House as Micaëla in Carmen, is stunning as Tatyana, giving her the lightness and energy that Tchaikovsky intended for her. Michael Fabiano makes his debut with honours as Lensky, despite having to be dead mercilessly on stage for a long time. Despite his relative importance – big for story development, not that big musically speaking – he delivers a heartfelt performance as the hot-blooded, naïve poet who is so in love with Tatyana’s sister Olga. The rest of the cast is equally good, making for a great musical balance, topped by the Royal Opera Chorus that is on top form. It must be mentioned, however, that the talent in the pit is exceptionally outstanding. Semyon Bychkov conducts with energy and dramatic sensitivity, which makes for an even more enjoyable score and overall music experience.
A trimmed revival of a dramatically intense production, this Eugene Onegin highlights some of the key ingredients of Pushkin’s verse novel: namely regret, remorse and nostalgia. Even though other aspects like irony and playfulness are left out – it can be argued that they were also left out of the libretto – this production channels Tchaikovsky’s evocative and emotionally complex score to great effect, aided by memorable performances and energetic conducting.
Eugene Onegin is playing at the Royal Opera House until 7 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Bill Cooper.