Director: Julia Burbach
Conductor: Lada Valešová
Opera Holland Park’s Eugene Onegin is an appealing production, beautifully staged, with the City of London Sinfonia on sparkling form under the baton of Lada Valešová. The choral singing is excellent and the soloists, in particular Anush Hovhannisyan as Tatyana, Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Thomas Atkins as Lensky are brilliant. Dale Johnson and Atkins look splendid in regency costume, the overall design by takis evoking something of Jane Austen’s world.
But Pushkin’s verse novel, on which Eugene Onegin is based, is a far darker world than Austen’s. Tatyana may seem like Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne, her love of literature peopling her inner world, but the lesson she is forced to learn is much harsher. Onegin, the cynical man she falls in love with, coldly rejects her. In a rash duel, he shoots dead his best friend Lensky, the fiancé of her sister Olga. Five years pass. When we next see her, Tatyana is transformed into a beautiful woman, married to Prince Gremin and the toast of St Petersburg society. Onegin sees her only to fall desperately in love with her. He pleads with her to elope with him. Tatyana admits to loving him still, but sternly orders him to leave. Her mother Larina, a hugely sympathetic Amanda Roocroft, stands as a model for a woman who has chosen an ordered life over one of heady and unreliable passion.
In Opera Holland Park’s production, we are left in no doubt that Tatyana has made the right choice. Onegin’s original appeal was his apparent loftiness and dignity in the remote countryside in which Tatyana lives. Here, director Julia Burbach’s decision to show Onegin as a shadowy figure haunting almost every scene makes him seem almost sinister. An uncomfortable tension is set up during Prince Gremin’s solo, for example. While a deeply affecting Matthew Stiff extols the transforming joys of love found when all hope has gone, we are shown in the background Onegin extravagantly pleading his love to Tatyana. Concern that Gremin will turn and see them overshadows the pathos of Gremin’s beautiful solo.
This constant appearance of Onegin in scenes in which he has no part becomes increasingly disturbing. Tatyana’s scene of youthful rapture in which she writes a love letter to Onegin is skewed by the presence of Onegin himself, supposedly a figure of her imagination. We are later shown him creeping around watching Lensky before the duel (and indeed Lensky himself is made to reappear posthumously in St Petersburg). Does Burbach want us to see him as something of a stalker? Whether deliberate or not, this discomfort unbalances the poignancy of Tatyana’s enduring love for Onegin and undermines his expressed regret for his past blindness.
Anush Hovhannisyan herself is magnificent in the final scenes as the bewitching wife of the Prince, her voice rich and beautiful. Hovhannisyan’s stature is suited to her elegant ball gown and compensates for the unkind costume she was forced to wear as her younger self.
Runs until 25 June 2022