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01 Aug 2012

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, Opera Holland Park, London

This was unquestionably the best all-round performance I have yet seen from Opera Holland Park, staging and musical performances alike often putting august metropolitan houses from around the world to shame.

Peter Illych Tchaikovsky : Eigene Onegin op 24

Eugene Onegin: Mark Stone; Tatiana: Anna Leese; Lensky: Peter Auty; Olga: Hannah Pedley; Mme Larina: Anne Mason; Filipievna: Elizabeth Sikora; Prince Gremin: Graeme Broadbent; Triquet: Patrick Mundy; Zaretsky/Captain: Barnaby Rea. Daniel Slater (director); Leslie Travers (set designs); Mark Jonathan (lighting); Denni Sayers (choreography); Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Kelvin Lim); City of London Sinfonia/Alexander Polianichko (conductor)

231st July 2012, Opera Holland Park, London


Where musical direction has sometimes proved variable, in Alexander Polianichko, OHP had recruited a fine Tchaikovsky conductor. (His reading of Cherevichki at the Royal Opera House was the first time I encountered his work.) Polianichko clearly felt at ease with the score and communicated that ease freely. Tempi and transitions were all well handled, nothing especially drawing attention to itself, the drama progressing ‘naturally’ from the musical ebb and flow - though, as we all know, it takes a great deal of art to conceal art. This might not have been the searing drama I heard Daniel Barenboim bring to Tchaikovsky’s opera in Berlin, but it served the work very well. It would be vain to suggest that the City of London Sinfonia would not have benefited from a greater number of strings - and there was room in the pit - but a chamber-orchestral performance worked far better than I had expected, noticeably better, indeed, than it had for Mozart or Beethoven, which suggests that the conductor and the performers on the night were at least as important as actual numbers. Certainly the strings played with cultivation and commitment. If they were sometimes overshadowed by some ravishing woodwind playing, the problem of balancing was not their fault.

Daniel Slater’s production was manifestly superior in every respect to the lifeless, Made-for-the-Met offering Deborah Warner foisted upon the Coliseum earlier this season. It will be interesting to see how Slater’s staging compares with the new production Kasper Holten is preparing for Covent Garden, since during a couple of conversations I had with Holten earlier this year, he mentioned the importance of memory to his conception of the work. (I think I can give that away at least, since it is not really giving anything away!)

That certainly shine through in Slater’s understanding too, Onegin a ghostly, dream-like figure often watching when he was not participating. Leslie Travers’s set - which might, and I mean this as a compliment - work equally well for an intelligent production of Der Rosenkavalier, evoke faded grandeur, the end of a line, aristocratic furniture upended, reminding us that Onegin was an outsider both chronologically as well as temperamentally. The third act, five years later, is set during the early years of the Revolution, the Polonaise treated as an opportunity for temporal relocation, young Soviet soldiers rearranging the stage, laying out a red carpet for (General?) Gremin and his well-connected wife, and, most touchingly, the nurse Filipievna snuffing out the candles from the Larinas’ chandelier.

It rises again, in fine post-revolutionary fettle, seemingly powered by newer, electric means, putting one inevitably in mind of Lenin’s equation of communism as Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country. I wondered at first how the new, Leninist setting would benefit the work, but was entirely won over, for the point was not so much the Leninist setting - though might that not also be an interesting idea: Onegin as Bolshevik, soon disaffected? - as the passing of time. There is nothing wrong, of course, with that being expressed as originally envisaged, but Tsarist St Petersburg is not in itself the point any more than Leningrad might be.

Books play an important role too. When we meet Tatiana, she is very much engrossed in her book (Richardson, presumably), something of a plain-Jane in contrast to the flightier Olga. Her mother, of course, counsels her - whether it be wisely is another matter - that she had to grow out of the fictions her youthful reading engendered, in order to live in the real world. The replacement of the Larinas’ library by an all-red set of books - suggesting, perhaps, a Progress Publishers’ collected edition, even though that fabled firm would not be founded until 1931? - again provides an excellent visual shorthand for the changed circumstances of the third act. Tatiana’s frustration is powerfully represented by her sweeping those books from the shelves.

In many respects, I felt that Slater’s staging brought Tchaikovsky’s opera, or at least its central character, closer to Pushkin’s ‘original’ than is usually the case. For not only is Onegin an outsider, he is filled with restlessness, and one has a very clear sense of him journeying from one scene to the next, much as in Pushkin’s lyric narrative. There is one loss here - though this is far from confined to this particular staging - in that there is relatively little room for Tchaikovsky’s homoeroticism, intentional or otherwise. Still, no staging of an interesting work will be able to deal with every concrete aspect, let alone with every dramatic possibility. This was the only staging I can recall seeing in the theatre to compare with Steven Pimlott’s bizarrely underrated production for the Royal Opera.

Mark Stone presented an Onegin handsome of tone as well as presence, aloof, restless, tormented without the slightest hint of exaggeration. Anna Leese was an excellent foil as Tatiana, her portrayal as intelligent, as dramatically progressive, as it was moving. Hannah Pedley’s Olga was pleasingly rich-toned, without detriment to her relative flightiness as a character (especially in this production). Whilst Peter Auty’s Lensky was well received, I found his performance and Patrick Mundy’s Triquet the only real disappointments in the cast, both somewhat coarse of timbre, the former in particular often sounding as if he would be happier singing Puccini. Otherwise, there was much to enjoy in the finely etched Mme Larina and Filipievna of Anne Mason and Elizabeth Sikora respectively, and in the less-geriatricly-portrayed-than-usual Gremin of Graeme Broadbent. The choral singing was excellent, an ideal match of clarity and weight, testament surely to excellent training from chorus master, Kelvin Lim. A memorable evening indeed.

Mark Berry

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