Yevgeny Onegin, Opera Holland Park, OHP, July 2012

This production by Daniel Slater updates the action by nearly 100 years to a time we all understand, making it clear that Onegin is living in the past. Such was arguably Pushkin’s intent in setting his novel in the period 1819–25 when reforms were very much in the air, and later crushed. Here we are in pre-First World War Russia in Acts I and II, followed by Lenin’s new world in Act III.

Olga and Tatyana, with Onegin revisiting the past; all images OHP/ Fritz Curzon

The sets by Leslie Travers show the destruction of the old aristocratic world, and during the brief musical introduction we see a man, and a woman, both in black coat and hat, gazing on what they have lost. Onegin has lost his earlier life: the dreamy country girl he rebuffed and humiliated, and his friend the provincial poetaster whom he killed in an absurd duel over the country girl’s vacuous sister. When he and she eventually meet again in Act III, the country girl Tatyana is now married to the worthy Prince Gremin, and Anna Leese’s monologue represented vocally how disturbed she feels at their new encounter. When he comes to her room, her heartfelt Ya vas lyublyu! (I love you) was a pivotal moment of pure Russian emotion, brilliantly supported by the orchestra under the direction of Alexander Polianichko, who conducted the same opera for the ENO nearly twenty years ago.

Tatyana and Onegin

The Russian diction was generally very good, and Hannah Pedley as a saucily amusing Olga was outstanding in this respect. Anne Mason represented a calm and dignified presence as the girls’ mother, and Elizabeth Sikora a comfily simple Filippyevna. Peter Auty as Lensky came across as truly Russian, singing a lyrically melodious Ya lyublyu vas to Olga in Act I, and suddenly losing his rag in Act II. As his second in the duel, Barnaby Rea’s diction was excellent, his Ubit over Lensky’s body having an air of utter finality, and in Act III Graeme Broadbent made a commanding figure as Prince Gremin, his main monologue powerfully sung.

Mark Stone portrayed Onegin as an attractive, sympathetic man, albeit narcissistic and aloof from the country folk, and sang this role very well. Anna Leese as Tatyana was outstanding, not just in Act III, but in the letter scene where she showed superb impulsiveness and emotional energy. It was a gripping performance suddenly raising the drama to a higher level.

That letter scene was cleverly played in this production, with multiple letters in the hands of the female chorus, all in nightdresses like Tatyana, and as they exited stage rear it made a poignant scene. Among other nice points, Monsieur Triquet’s silly doggerel in Act II was delivered as if he himself is in love with Tatyana, falling on his knees in front of her before being dragged away. Onegin does the same at the end of Act III, before she draws on inner resources to send him away herself.

Wonderfully subtle lighting changes by Mark Jonathan helped alter the emotional tone of events, and Alexander Polianichko’s conducting gave a fine example of Russian brass playing at the start of Act III. This is a must-see.

Performances continue until August 4 — for details click here.

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