Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin.

Tatyana – Krassimira Stoyanova
Onegin – Simon Keenlyside
Lensky – Pavol Breslik
Olga – Yelena Maximova
Gremin – Peter Rose
Larina – Diana Montague
Filipyevna – Kathleen Wilkinson
Captain – Michel de Souza
Triquet – Christophe Mortagne

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Robin Ticciati.
Stage director – Kasper Holten
Royal Opera House, London. Monday, February 4th, 2013.

Photo: (C) ROH/Bill Cooper

With an outstanding cast comprising some of today’s leading exponents of their roles, an important directorial voice making his house debut and a promising young conductor in the pit, this Yevgeny Onegin promised much. Did it finally deliver? Well I’m afraid that I’m not sure that it did. There was certainly so much to admire but it was also somewhat frustrating, especially in the conducting and the staging. I don’t really want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the show if they haven’t already seen it, so I’ll leave the discussion of the staging to the end of this piece so that anyone who wishes to avoid spoilers can do so. That said, it has been widely discussed already and it looks like it has divided the audience.

Musically it was a superb evening as far as the singing was concerned. Simon Keenlyside has always been one of my favourite singers and he gave an excellent performance. It’s true, the voice didn’t quite have the freshness in the upper register that it used to but the middle is still glorious. What I also liked about his performance is how he used the language to project the line and while he is not a fluent Russian speaker (neither am I for that matter), it seemed that he was so completely at home in the language. His acting also showed the clear progression to the frustrated and bitter man of the finale. Krassimira Stoyanova is also a singer whom I greatly admire and I was very much looking forward to her Tatyana. Vocally she was extremely glamorous, her beautiful soprano fully at ease in the long lines and completely at home in the role. I hate to be churlish but I felt that at times some of the highest notes were not quite à point and that from where I was sitting (in the balcony), the voice came across as perhaps a size too small for this theatre. Ultimately, I felt that she was much more believable as Gremina than as Tatyana but that may well be an issue with the production rather than her performance.

Pavol Breslik’s Lensky was perhaps the best performance of the night. His voice is also somewhat small for the role but he gave a masterpiece in how to sing it without forcing the voice and sacrificing quality of tone. His ‘kuda, kuda?’ was heart-wrenchingly beautiful, the voice free and easy throughout the range. I also very much enjoyed Yelena Maximova’s Olga with her fruity contralto and Diana Montague’s glamorous Larina.

The chorus were perfectly decent the orchestra less so sadly. I found that there were far too many fluffed entries and some painfully sour intonation from the strings. In fact it is the worst performance I have heard from that normally excellent band. Part of the blame must lie with Robin Ticciati’s conducting. I don’t know whether it was lack of rehearsal but I found his conducting lacked imagination and was simply metronomic. There was no give and take, no sweep to it and no sense of inner pulse. He made this glorious score sound dull and lifeless and this is a score that is full of life and passion.

Kasper Holten has said that Onegin is one of his very favourite operas and one that he has held off directing for a long time. I feel that he has perhaps waited too long to do it and that the staging came across as somewhat confused. Part of the reason for that is that he established body-doubles to perform the roles of Tatyana and Onegin. While Tatyana sang the letter scene, her younger self wrote the letter. While Tatyana’s name day party was taking place, her younger self hid in the closet. There were some arresting individual stage pictures but also the presence of these actors took attention away from the singers and rapidly became distracting. There were some wonderful moments, for example with the chorus at the party physically intimidating Tatyana which created a perfect example of displaying Tatyana’s outcast status, yet I found the whole lacked clarity and ultimately felt like a work in progress. I found Daniel Slater’s production at Opera Holland Park much better encapsulated the feeling of the end of an era, especially that wonderful moment when Filipyevna extinguished the candles at the house. I would like to see more of Holten’s work and it would also be interesting to see whether he does develop this production more when it is revived later on.

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