Eugene Onegin, ENO
Hellen Wallace reviews Deborah Warner's production of Tchaikovsky's opera
Eugene Onegin must be unique among opera plots in the catastrophic effect it had on its composer’s life. Like Onegin, Tchaikovsky received an ardent love letter from a girl he hardly knew, Antonina Milyukova; horrified that he might be acting like Onegin in rejecting her, he felt honour-bound to enter a disastrous marriage. The challenge for a director is whether to identify Onegin with the estranged, artistic outsider, Tchaikovsky, or to make him more like Pushkin’s depraved villain, and to backload all the characters with the poet’s almost gleeful sense of irony.
Deborah Warner has taken the former approach in a largely traditional production which is skewed by its casting. Her Onegin (Audun Iversen) is no monster, but a nonchalant, solipsistic youth. In Act One, he lacks the snarl of real scorn, and comes across as a rational, self-aware commitment-phobe who lets her down gently with a chaste kiss. Amanda Echalaz as Tatyana, on the other hand, may act the part of melancholy young bookworm, but her singing was altogether on too big a scale to allow for real fragility. Sounding more mature than Onegin himself, her letter scene was shrill and loud, not helped by the vast barn in which this most intimate of scenes was set – neither apparently indoors nor outdoors, it only served to make a clumsy point about the rural setting.
It was hard to see how this neutral Onegin and belting Tatyana could make their dramatic transformations into deranged lover and sophisticated society hostess in Act Three, and certainly Echalaz had nowhere vocally to go. To their credit they created a final scene of great tension: if we believe the two actually might elope, they have succeeded, and this was almost the case here.
Still, the climax of the opera came in Act Two with Toby Spence’s touching Farewell aria, beautifully paced and risking a wonderful range of timbres – the only pianissimo singing of the night. He makes a perfect Lensky, a bright, glistening stage presence with a youthful openness that at once gives him the vulnerability this Tatyana lacked. While his melodramatic petulance in the ball of Act Two is faintly ridiculous, by the fateful duel his sincerity is searing. Claudia Huckle’s inimitably dark-hued mezzo made her an alluring Olga, while Brindley Sherratt was in sonorous voice as Prince Gremin.
Gardner delivered the score with taut verve, reminding us how close to ballet these lyric scenes are. There were moments, like the close of Tatyana’s letter scene, where tautness became perfunctory and the upper strings needed more radiance, though the cellos lead the narrative with warmth. Couldn’t the horns have lingered a little over their lovely falling melody? But the sense of disjunction that permeated the whole performance was not ultimately down to Gardner, but the curtain drops and long pauses between scenes that served no practical purpose since Tom Pye’s sets remained unchanged. Jean Kalman’s lighting worked its magic on two memorable winter outdoor scenes and a magnificent final ballroom, where Kim Brandstrup’s elegant choreography was finally allowed to shine.
Eugene Onegin is on at the Coliseum, London until 3 December
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine