When Eugene Onegin premiered in Moscow in 1879, Tchaikovksy was aware of the weight of expectation around his new opera which had been directly inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem of the same title. Pushkin was Russia’s Shakespeare – a god. Would his dramatisation of Pushkin’s masterpiece come off well? Pushkin was long gone by then, having perished in a duel aged thirty-seven.
The story takes us to Madame Larina’s estate, a sleepy backwater of 19th century Russia. Tatyana, Madame Larina’s daughter has fallen in love with suave, byronic Onegin who has been brought over by a family friend, Lensky. Lensky is engaged to Tatyana’s sister Olga. At a ball, Onegin enrages Lensky by flirting with Olga during the mazurka. Lensky challenges his best friend Onegin to a duel. The plot is that simple.
The all-knowing narrator with his caustic commentary in Pushkin’s version was done away with in Tchaikovsky’s opera. Tchaikovsky had written four operas by the time he had embarked on ‘Eugene Onegin’. He knew that, for the opera to work, he had to bring Tatyana, Lensky and Onegin to life. The audience needed to care about them and their plight to find love, or to avoid love in Onegin’s case. At its core Onegin is a tale of passion and heart wrenching regret.
Eugene’s Onegin’s opening night at Opera Holland Park was one of great anticipation as it opened OHP’s opera series.
From the famous ‘Letter aria’ Scene 2, Anush Hovhannisyan impressed in her role of Tatyana. We soon forgot the opening scene which had suffered first night glitches; a matter of timing, chorus muddle and tight vocal cords. Amanda Roocroft as Madame Marina, and Kathleen Wilkinson, nanny were however superb matriarchs bemoaning marriage and men.
Dressed in a cotton Napoleonic gown, her long curly hair spilling out in all directions, Hovhannisyan proved every inch the bookish, comely girl from minor landed gentry. Drafts of her letter to Onegin litter the floor. Her phrasing and girlish pitch brought out her naivety and lack of guile. What is often considered to be an overlong opera scene flowed along naturally to Tchaikovsky’s immaculately thought-out score which was sensitively handled by Lada Valešova. The inclusion of Onegin on stage, the Onegin Tatyana has conjured in her mind, worked well too. He weaved around her tantalisingly, giving the audience a window into her emotional state.
Samuel Dale Johnson was a convincing Onegin. He looked the part of the dandy, neatly donned in dark frock coat, breeches, and shiny boots, as did his friend Lensky, in green. The theme of vanished youth came across powerfully largely due to Johnson’s and Thomas Atkins’s considerable acting ability. We really believed in their close friendship.
Lensky seems at first the positive force of nature but his optimism is short-lived. Atkins was utterly disarming when he sang Lensky’s famous aria “How happy, how happy I am!” without a trace of irony. It’s a trite title, but Atkins conveyed all the sincere rapture of young love. His swan song before his duel with Onegin however, “Where have you gone, O golden days of my Spring” was by contrast, achingly poignant.
Hovhannisyan and Johnson gave electrifying performances as frustrated lovers in the final scene. Tatyana now wife to Prince Gremin, demonstrated her formidable dramatic soprano, her impassioned high notes hit the sweet spot to thrilling effect. Impassioned Onegin matched her high-octane performance. At times I thought Johnson’s entry into the higher register was impinging on tenor territory!
There were other arias to cherish on the night. Prince Gremin’s “All surrender to Love’s Power” was both convincingly charming and ironic, as we saw Onegin and Tatyana, Gremin’s wife, devouring each other with amorous looks.
Most, but not all directorial decisions worked well on the night. The decision to use the stage to show to what point Onegin was persona non grata in Petersberg society was inspired however. In the latter part of the opera Onegin is chased off the main stage by a crowd coming at him from both right and left. He retreats to the furthest ‘lip’ of the OHP stage which stretches into the audience – there he crouches, a pitiful, ostracised figure.
This was an ambitious start to OHP’s opera season. Through careful casting of the main three singers, OHP has produced an opera of emotional intensity and truth and for Tchaikovsky lovers, this is a rare feast.
31 May, 3, 9, 11, 15, 17, 21 and 25 June at 7.30pm
13 and 23 June at 7.30pm (Young Artists Performances)
19 June at 2pm (Discovery Matinee, audio-described and Relaxed Performance)
15 and 21 June at 12pm (Schools Matinees)