Nicole Car as Tatyana. (C) Bill Cooper

Too much reading

Lucien Jenkins

A revived Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House won a roar of approval from its audience. And no wonder: it had been a roaring musical success.

The title role (sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the earlier part of the run) was performed by the Polish baritone Artur Rucinsky. An Onegin the audience could sympathise with, this was a man who messed up, not a romantic villain. He and soprano Nicole Car’s Tatyana (in charge of the night’s only high notes) made a wonderful pair of star-crossed – well, they never do actually become lovers. They were matched by Tatyana’s sister Olga (contralto Oksana Volkova) and Lensky. Michael Fabiano had in some ways the short straw with the tenor role of Lensky, so all credit to the American that the versifying neighbour didn’t turn out a drip.

The look of the show was vaguely realistic as far as period costumes went. True, the peasants were surprisingly clean, and all with footwear, something the originals definitely didn’t own. Still, the excellent chorus had to switch from being peasants celebrating the harvest in one scene to local aristocrats at a party in the next, so a bit of costume compromise may be allowed.

The overall visual palette was mild: lots of cream and grey, with a pastel Olga and Lensky. This threw Onegin’s green and especially Tatyana’s red into striking relief. And was that the influence of Ilya Repin on the posed upstage chorus, silent upon a peak?

Where we abandoned realism was in the division of each of Tatyana and Onegin into two: an older self sang all the lines, while a young one occasionally entered to dance and mime. This would have been revolutionary theatre about 40 years ago. The memory of the separate auditions for singing and dancing Hitlers in Mel Brooks’s The Producers began to float dangerously up into consciousness. The conceit emphasised issues of regret, the contrast between youth and maturity, expectation and outcome, but the idea was worked too hard. It reminded me of when a government wheeze is meticulously carried through when someone should have pointed out that although clever, it wasn’t actually working. And there was altogether too much stage business: characters bustled about during the short overture and all the entr’actes. Fine, the minimal scenery and props didn’t require changing, but surely an audience could be trusted to interest itself in the orchestra without the provision of a visual obbligato?

The fact that this is a story about reading was also exhaustively aired by director Kasper Holten. (The question ‘in which opera do the characters discuss the novels of Samuel Richardson’ really ought to join ‘which opera ends in Whitechapel’, and ‘which has a Bible-study group in Act 1’ in all decent pub quizzes.) A pile of books was visible even before the curtain went up and the audience tittered as Filipyevna cleared them away while Tatyana retrieved them from the bookcase. This strikingly female-centred opera opens with the sisters’ mother (mezzo Diana Montague) reflecting with Filipyevna on her own story of arranged marriage, then warning her daughter than life is different from novels. The male voices only enter later. By contrast, the tessitura is also striking: how much of the passion throbs in the lower end of singers’ voices, and how the bass-line instruments dominate the orchestration (not to mention all the basses the singing): despite the light, questioning violins in the overture, this is a dark, deep piece. Semyon Bychkov conducted.