Fleeting Hope: Yevgeny Onegin at La Monnaie – De Munt

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin (Евгений Онегин)

Tatyana – Sally Matthews
Olga – Lilly Jørstad
Larina – Bernadetta Grabias
Filippyevna – Cristina Melis
Lensky – Bogdan Volkov
Yevgeny Onegin – Stéphane Degout
Triquet – Christophe Mortagne
Zaretski – Kamil Ben Hsaïn Lachiri
Prince Gremin – Nicolas Courjal

Koor van de Munt, Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie / Alain Altinoglu.
Stage director – Laurent Pelly.   

De Munt – La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium.  Sunday, February 5th, 2023.

This new production of Yevgeny Onegin, by Laurent Pelly, opened at De Munt – La Monnaie last weekend.  It appears to have garnered significant interest – the entire run is almost completely sold out.  It also contains a number of role debuts, with both Stéphane Degout and Sally Matthews making their debuts as Onegin and Tatyana respectively.  Pelly gives us a somewhat austere staging.  The sets are minimal, allowing us to focus our attention on the principals, who are used to drive the action forward.

Photo: © Karl Forster

That said, within this minimalist setting, Pelly and his set designer, Massimo Troncanetti, were able to create some memorable stage pictures.  The opening scene took place on a revolving platform, the Larin family literally put on a pedestal by the peasants.  We could see the peasants pushing the platform around, yet they were never able to stand on it.  In so doing, Pelly may well have been making a point about how the peasants sustained the Larin family yet were always kept at a distance.  This contrasted with Tatyana’s name day celebration where the platform was populated by an elegantly-dressed crowd, and the St Petersburg scene where the platform was transformed into steps – reflecting Tatyana’s own rise in the social hierarchy to becoming a Princess.  Similarly, in the letter scene, the back of the set rose to enclose Tatyana into a triangular pen, reflecting how the letter would change her life and imprison Tatyana into the consequences of her teenage feelings for Onegin.

Photo: © Karl Forster

I found Pelly’s staging an intelligent and cogent piece of theatre.  So much was achieved through the direction of the singers – seeing Matthews’ Tatyana forced to stand in the centre of the stage in her name day party, her shoulders tensed up in her dislike at being the centre of attention, was incredibly striking.  There was also interesting chemistry between Degout’s Onegin and Bogdan Volkov’s Lensky.  The jealousy in the name day party as Onegin flirted with Olga was potent, especially as I’m convinced that Onegin looked at Lensky in a way that appeared to taunt him, suggesting that their relationship was something more than friendship.  The staging abounded in small details like this, with an interaction between characters that significantly enhanced its storytelling. 

Photo: © Karl Forster

Musically, this was an evening that gave an immense amount of pleasure.  As always under Alain Altinoglu, the house orchestra was on excellent form.  Having not heard this glorious score live for four years, getting to hear the full and deep pile carpet of sound Altinoglu elicited from the strings was a real treat.  He obtained a comprehensive palette of instrumental colour – violins bringing icy Siberian winds to the duel scene, the poetry of the solo oboe and the eloquence of the horns in the letter scene.  Altinoglu’s tempi were sensible, giving space to the principals to tell their stories, yet the evening seemed to fly by.  The waltz had undeniable swing.  The house chorus sang with excellent discipline and fullness of tone, filling the house with wonderfully warm sound.

Photo: © Karl Forster

Degout gave us a superbly sung Onegin.  His baritone is in fantastic shape, that masculine dark sound in the middle, it takes wing, seemingly without limits, on top.  He rose to the demands on the final scene, always sung in an impeccable line, never succumbing to the urge to hector.  His was an interesting assumption of the role.  I found his physical portrayal of Onegin to be rather cold and aloof, despite the warmth of his baritone.  This worked well in the earlier phases of the evening and was at one with the character.  Yet once we got to the final scene, the desperation that he felt in wanting to make something happen with Tatyana felt cold, as if desperately trying to make his character feel something that he didn’t.  In a way, I thought this to be a deliberate choice, that underneath the surface and pretty costumes of Pelly’s staging, there was an ambiguous sexuality attempting to come out – which of course would be as one with Tchaikovsky’s own life.  Undoubtedly a psychologically insightful portrayal.

Photo: © Karl Forster

Matthews sang Tatyana in her generously vibrating soprano.  The intonation issues that I have previously found to have been a feature of her singing were not as present here, although the voice did tend to flatness in the middle.  She attacked her music with generous force and soared easily in the climactic final scene.  Her letter scene was impetuous, filling the house with silvery tone, but she was also unafraid to pull back to bring a satisfying wistfulness to those treacherous descending phrases, with good pitching, where many before have found peril.  Matthews’ Tatyana was always honestly sung.

Photo: © Karl Forster

I must admit that Lensky is the best thing I’ve heard from Bogdan Volkov.  His tenor opened out quite exquisitely on top, yet he never pushed the voice further than it could go.  He phrased his youthful declarations of love to Olga with warmth of tone and generosity of line.  In his ‘kuda, kuda?’ he took so many phrases in a single breath, where many previously have had to break them up, and found poetry in his colouring of the text.  He also made intelligent use of dynamics.

Photo: © Karl Forster

In the remainder of the cast, Lily Jørstad was a wonderfully vivacious Olga, who really used the text to bring out a wealth of vocal colour.  Bernadetta Grabias was a similarly textually acute Larina, sung in an aristocratic line and glamorous mezzo.  Cristina Melis was an efficient Filippyevna, singing her music in a rustic contralto, the text forward.  Christophe Mortagne brought his piquant and characterful tenor to the role of Monsieur Triquet, while Nicolas Courjal sang Germin’s aria with long lines and a full and resonant bottom.  I was also struck by Karim Ben Hsaïn Lachiri’s Zaretsky.  Even in a role as brief as this, he made a significant impression with the handsomeness of his baritone and commanding stage presence.

Photo: © Karl Forster

There was much to enjoy in today’s Onegin.  We were given an intelligent staging that had so much more than surface beauty, offering us a view into the lives of people who simply wanted to love, yet didn’t know how to.  Musically it was first class: more than decently sung across the board, superbly played, and conducted with vigour, drama, and reflection.  The audience gave the entire cast an extremely warm reception at the close. 

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