Last night with D to Eugene Onegin. That’s “Youjean” according to the foyer announcement.
This is a coproduction between Opera Australia and a few other companies and Covent Garden, where it was the first offering of Kasper Holten, Danish wunderkind and now director of opera there.
The production has a “concept,” the action is seen in regretful retrospect by the older Tatyana and Onegin as they are at the time of their meeting again as depicted in the final two scenes.
The most obvious aspect of this is that two dancers embody the younger selves – not all the time (which makes it a bit confusing) but at certain key moments at which they are regarded by their older, singing, selves. I suspect an impetus for this may have been the age of the singers in the Covent Garden production: an impetus which was lacking given that Nicole Car, as Tatyana, certainly had no need of a younger double, and Dalibor Jenis, as Onegin (whose age is less important) scarcely called for one either.
The main such key moments are Tatyana’s letter scene and Onegin’s duel with Lensky. In my confusion I probably missed and have since forgotten some others. At the end, when the older Onegin and Tatyana muse on what might have been, we see the dancers as the young lovers who never were.
For me that sort of worked for the duel scene, distracted for the letter scene, and worked well if a little obviously for the final non-reminiscence of what might have been.
Another aspect was the accumulation on the stage of properties as signs of memory – starting with (I may be wrong: there are two letters in the opera and at the outset you do not have all the wit to attend to all the clues) Onegin’s letter to Tatyana when he meets her years later, and culminating with Lensky’s body after he is killed.
A further aspect is the set: a kind of wall pierced by doorways which are sometimes closed, in Tatyana’s letter scene covered by curtains (onto which the letter is projected) and otherwise opened to reveal various back-projections and other scenic effects. This was handsome and effective. In the SOH (where the stage has reasonable depth but little width) that reduced the actual area of live stage, but given that this is largely a domestic drama (it isn’t really a grand opera, rather 7 scenes from a famous poem), that’s quite fitting.
To my untutored eye, the projected text of Tatyana’s letter seemed to be in Russian – not that I’m an expert in Cyrillic handwriting or anything, but I didn’t recognise a single French word. OK, I’m untutored in both languages, but at least I’ve read libretti in French (though otherwise it’s Café au lait grande tasse, Nescafé?).
According to Pushkin (Chapter III verse XXVI – Charles Johnston’s translation here) Tatyana wrote in French.
Probably dictated principally by the need for Lensky to remain on the stage once shot, the traditional 3 acts division of the 7 scenes (1-3, 4-5, 6-7) was redistributed into 2 acts (1-4, 5-7). The famous Polonaise which normally opens the ball at the beginning of Act III Scene 1 (the sixth scene) became an interlude with a balletic sequence depicting Onegin on his travels where, it seems, he may have sought the kindness of strangers, or at least, beautiful women in nighties. That’s a cheap phrase on my behalf because actually I thought this was an effective way of joining the dots and allowing for the regrouping of the scenes.
After all this, I’ve run out of energy to give an account of the music. Suffice to say (most of this has been said elsewhere) that it was a triumph for Nicole Car, and that Dalibor Jenis as Onegin was a calibre of singer we rarely see (he has a strange vocal mannerism at up to about mf just above the bass stave but when at full throttle he his fearless right to the top). James Egglestone (Lensky) doesn’t always make a beautiful sound, and in striving for volume (eg: in the quartet at the end of scene 4) he sometimes chopped up the phrases into syllables, but I thought he was much better than when I last saw him in Butterfly and he was dramatically convincing.
Kanen Breen pulled off yet another genuinely funny (not always the case in opera) comic turn as Monsieur Triquet.
But most of all, it is Tchaikovsky’s music which is evocative and beautiful. The orchestra under the extremely dynamic (I love how he crouches to the ground for orchestral pianos) Guillaume Tourniaire rose to the occasion, especially the winds. Julian Smiles, guesting as principal cello (OA simultaneously fielded another orchestra for Butterfly on the Harbour) had some fine moments, even if he didn’t always manage to bring the rest of the section with him and there were also similar moments of “leaderitis” in the first violins. The exhilarating climax of Tatyana’s letter scene moved me to tears.