Keenlyside as Onegin at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper 2013
Kasper Holten arrived to take up his post as the Royal Opera's director of opera in 2011, but his first self-directed staging had to wait until February 4, 2013, when his new production of Eugene Onegin took to the Covent Garden stage. This is a work of which Holten, apparently, has long been inordinately fond; in the production's program, he described Tchaikovsky's masterpiece as "one of my favorite operas of all time," and in a recent newspaper article he described how he fell in love with it as a teenager, "studying Russian for three years in high school so I could read Pushkin's verse novel in the original."
Holten's staging managed to combine elements of traditional opera production with more radical interventions. Set designer Mia Stensgaard and costume designer Katrina Lindsay defined the period of the action as the nineteenth century, though the time had been pushed forward from Pushkin's 1820s to the era of Tchaikovsky's composition. (Eugene Onegin had its premiere in 1879.) A room in a country house whose cupboards were full of books opened onto projected images (by Leo Warner and Lawrence Watson of Fifty Nine Productions) that variously evoked cornfields, forests and St. Petersburg interiors. Costumes were more curious: the chorus of peasants in the opening scene wore black, with the women donning bombazine dresses that gave them the air of strict Victorian governesses in mourning.
More radical still was Holten's decision to duplicate his two principals with dancers representing their younger selves, played by Thom Rackett (Onegin) and Vigdis Hentze Olsen (Tatiana) respectively. The idea (one might even use the loaded term "concept") was to present the narrative essentially in retrospect, with the two characters at the heart of the piece reflecting as mature individuals on their previous actions. That the singers playing these roles were themselves physically mature — Simon Keenlyside (Onegin) is now fifty-three, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatiana) fifty — may have played some part in his decision; neither could credibly suggest the ages of Pushkin's characters at the beginning of his text, when Onegin is twenty-six and Tatiana presumably several years younger. In any case, the idea might have been more effective had it been less intensively pursued; as it was, the dancers created alternative centers of visual attention that distracted from the vocal protagonists ever more insistently as the evening wore on.
For all that, Keenlyside and Stoyanova gave performances of substantial accomplishment and detail. Keenlyside's wide-ranging baritone registered as fully equipped to encompass the role's vocal and expressive demands, even if a hint of strain was apparent later on; his virtuosity as a physical actor made his frequent upstaging by a second Onegin all the more regrettable. In the case of Stoyanova's Tatiana, her vocal apparatus proved ideal for the role — a characteristic Slavic blend of vibrant potency and finely controlled delicacy; she, too, made an impression as an actress of considerable command.
Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik, singing the role of Lenski, was at least allowed to perform his role unshadowed, though not without some extra-curricular physical duties; at the start of the duel scene, he entered dragging a substantial tree branch behind him. Having fallen dead following Onegin's fatal shot (fired by the dancer, not Keenlyside), he stayed in position as a motionless body at the front of the stage for the remaining St. Petersburg scenes. In terms of his live performance, his vivid acting combined with trenchant, cleanly produced and finely honed tone to give him equal status with the two leads; his reflective aria was perfectly shaped. Breslik was skillfully partnered by Russian mezzo Elena Maximova as Olga, a character she presented as more sentient and sensitive than the regular flirty airhead; her airy, lightweight tone was gracefully deployed.
Peter Rose's Prince Gremin made an unscheduled appearance in the final scene, fuming at Onegin's presence with visible anger that he was unable to express vocally, because Tchaikovsky forgot to write him into that scene. Earlier, on encountering Onegin at the St. Petersburg ball (which — like other points in the piece at which large-scale choreography is traditional — was practically a dance-free zone), his explanation of the change in his own emotional fortunes was overlayed with a frantic jealousy inexplicable at this juncture; he nevertheless sang with authority and offered a grand physical presence. In smaller roles, Diana Montague's Madame Larina vied for attention with Kathleen Wilkinson's Filippyevna, though French tenor Christophe Mortagne's ebullient Monsieur Triquet effortlessly stole his solo scene as the local literary celebrity.
Rising young conductor Robin Ticciati led a musical performance notable for passion and energy, if at times a little smudgy in definition. But the evening's focus was inevitably on the staging, and the final verdict was mixed; a few boos mingled with the cheers at the production team's curtain call.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.