DramaOperaReviewSouth West

Eugene Onegin – Bristol Hippodrome

Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Lyrics: Konstantin Shilovsky

Reviewer: Julia Beasley

As far as romantic heroes go, Eugene is a pretty sulky, selfish and vain chap. Dry as a twig and dressed like an undertaker, he is a young urbanite bored with society and himself. The audience senses from the start that Eugene is short on empathy and it’s probably not going to end well for him.

True to type, in Act I, our haughty hero (played by Nicholas Lester) condescendingly spurns the naïve, impressionistic Tatyana who has let him know that she has a massive crush on him. In Act II he goads his loyal best friend Lensky into a jealous rage and his ends up fatally shooting him. Can Eugene’s life get any more tragic? Indeed it can since this is the stuff that great opera is made of – unrequited love, jealousy, a duel at dawn that goes hideously wrong, foolish pride and a massive fall from grace.

Tchaikovsky’s three and a half hour long opera in Russian is based on the Nineteenth Century novel in verse by Alexandra Pushkin, a literary classic. Pushkin published the novel in serialised form to an eager public in the 1830s, exactly as Charles Dickens was doing in England. Both writers were concerned with social class, though Pushkin is no rebel. Eugene Onegin is a window into social class in pre-revolutionary Russia, full of wide vistas and big emotional choruses. No wonder it has been popular since the first showing in Moscow in 1879.

Having staged this opera various times since 1980, Welsh National Opera’s latest production at Bristol’s Hippodrome theatre is musically adept as one would expect from WNO. Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic score reflects the yearning of the characters and is superbly executed by the orchestra under conductor Ainars Rubikis.

The chorus, whether portraying the landed classes at a ball or serfs at harvest time, is the backbone and the muscle of the entire production. Their costumes deserve a mention – look out for the quirky ball gowns of the rich, the babushkas in headscarves and several bare-chested peasants cavorting with Putin-esque machismo.

The only disappointing aspect of this production is the set, which somewhat disappointingly resembles a beige flat-pack cupboard with visible joins (hard to miss this if you need to keep your eyes open to read the subtitles).

Perhaps Eugene Onegin has lasted because, despite its title, its heart is female. Tatyana (played by Natalya Romaniw) was the heroine of a generation of Pushkin readers, the ideal of Russian womanhood: “Shy as a savage, silent, tearful, wild as a forest deer, and fearful”.

Gentle virtues aside, she ultimately proves strong enough to reject Eugene when he realises what he has lost. His tragedy is that he is doomed to loneliness. Tatyana, one can’t help rejoicing on exiting the theatre, had a narrow escape when she didn’t get her man.

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