The ROH Onegin – too much love?

9 Feb

The ROH has had a disappointing run of productions of Eugene Onegin.  After the Peter Hall production clocked up 9 revivals, the last two, by John Cox and Stephen Pimlott, limped to a single revival each, hobbled by ghastly sets.  There’s nothing wrong the Johannes Leieacker’s set for Kasper Holten’s production, which I saw on 6th February, but it’s what goes on inside them that makes me wonder if it will manage even that.

This is Holten’s first production since becoming Director of Opera and, on paper, he had a good cast and an interesting young conductor.  He’s a respected director and says that this is his favourite opera and one that obsessed him as a child.  My overwhelming feeling about this performnace was that Holten loves the piece too much and wants to put too much into it.  Time and again, during this performance, I felt that it was in need of a good editor who was really going to challenge the director’s ideas, cut some of them and inspire others.  That’s the sort of role that, for example, a good Director of Opera might have.  Unfortunately, Holten holds that post as well.

In lots of places, I could see what Holten was getting at.  Onegin is about people who do idiotic things when they are young and regret them when they are older, or find that things change when they are older.  And he’s not the first director to try to contrast the first two acts with the last. David Pountney’s production for Scottish Opera started life with a scrim down for the first two acts making it look like a series of old photographs and then you came up to the present day for the last act.  That idea didn’t last for more than six months of the production’s life simply because you cannot get the rawness of emotion of the second scene with a gauze between the singers and the audience.

Holten tried a different device.  He had dancers playing the young Onegin and Tatyana and the older singers sometimes watching, sometimes participating in the action.  This worked variably.  There were two moments when I thought it added something: in the duel scene, when the older Onegin tries to stop his younger self from going forward to the duel and in the last scene where, for a moment, the two younger characters ran into the room as the older ones remembered their youths.  But these mildly effective moments were at the unacceptable price of, at worst, complete distortion and, at best, confusion of key parts of the rest of the opera.

The worst problem came in the letter scene where the dancer wrote the letter and was spoken to by Filipyevna while the older Tatyana sang what she was saying, almost as if dictating and certainly feeling an over-lay of later emotions.  I can see that this might indicate that the older Tatyana still has those feelings (though that becomes clear enough in the final scene anyway) or, as I felt, that there was an overlay of older experience.  Now the power of the letter scene is that it is about raw, immediate, youthful emotion and you need direct communication of that from the singer to the audience. We simply did not get that.  I find it really hard to believe that anyone who really loved and understood the opera could seriously think of wrecking one of the central episodes in this way.

Beyond this, there was the sheer confusion caused by Tatyana at one moment watching, but singing for, the double and, the next, apparently fully involved in the scene.  There was no logic discernible for the changes and I felt very sorry for Krassimira Stroyanova who, I felt, was hobbled in her portrayal of Tatyana.  Having said that, I’m not sure that this is the ideal role for her.  As her Ariadne in Vienna showed, she is a very elegant and cultured singer.  She was at her best as the Princess Gremin finding the tension between the life she had chosen and the life she would have liked.  I’d love to see her do Elisabeth de Valois or Amelia in Ballo or as the Countess in Capriccio. I’m not convinced that she has the sheer raw emotion for the young Tatyana: she sang the letter scene strongly and well but without once uttering a memorable phrase or one that tugged at the heart – to be fair, I don’t think she was allowed to.

Then there was the characterisation of Onegin.  Rather than being the dignified, bored young man, there’s something of the excitable puppy about him as he sits on the floor in the first scene at Tatyana’s feet, well up for a flirtation and the dancers suggest a deeper attraction on both sides than we usually see.  His behaviour in the rejection scene was of a young man who has got himself into a mess rather than someone who is giving a lecture and simply hasn’t the taste to see the potential in Tatyana.  At the Larin’s party he’s simply out of control.  It’s an interesting reading and Simon Keenlyside played up to it gamely, almost changing his mind in the third scene and suggesting a real erotic charge between him and Tatyana. My problem was that I didn’t feel that this worked closely enough with Onegin’s rather distant, formal music or the text and I also feel that part of the really unpleasant irony of the opera is that he doesn’t realise the depth of his love for Tatyana until the third act and it’s too late.  Now I’m happy to accept that there may be other ways of playing Onegin than as a cold, proud Mr Darcy figure and I can see a logic in the way in which Holten has tried to play it, but this is the logic that you get from thinking about it after the event, rather than because it felt right at the time.

Holten also tries to get a dream-like element there – not unreasonably, a lot of the opera is about Tatyana’s fantasy about Onegin and her dreamy novel-reading.  Sometimes this worked: I liked the way the chorus at the beginning of the third scene was of women who had written similar letters and whose lovers clearly welcomed it.  I was less sure about using the opening of Act III as a sort of dream sequence for Onegin as he has to deal with, I think, ghostly Tatyanas and Olgas, presumably haunting him after Lensky’s death.  Onegin’s narration gives you all you need and Keenlyside is quite good enough an actor to let you see it.

I also wasn’t convinced by the accretion of symbols during the second half.  For the final scene, Tatyana and Onegin had to negotiate their way around a very large branch (pulled in by Lensky at the start), Lensky’s body, scattered books and little piles of snow.  I think there’s quite enough going on in that scene for all of that to be unnecessary (can anyone who saw it forget Graham Vick’s empty stage save for two chairs at Glyndebourne?) and you felt that the singers were a bit hampered by it all.  Audiences aren’t stupid and we don’t need this clutter to get the ideas.

As for the singing, I think I’ve dealt with Stroyanova.  Keenlyside was predictably fine but without, I felt, being allowed to give of his best.  Pavel Breslik was a decent enough Lensky though he probably wasn’t helped by being hugged by Onegin through much of his aria.  In an opera which has quite a few grateful lesser roles, only Diana Montague as Larina and Peter Rose as Gremin stood out.  Rose appeared for the last part of the rejection scene.  Again, I thought this provided a whole lot of gloss that you don’t need: the point of that scene is Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin, not what it does to her marriage or his relationship with Gremin and by adding that dimension, you actually distract from what is going on with the characters.  I thought Rose sang it very well indeed but seemed like a glum, suspicious, ungenerous character.

Robin Ticciati conducted and clearly had a lovely time.  He drew some beautiful playing from the orchestra but I can’t help remembering Gergiev and the delicacy and wit that he drew out of M Triquet’s number and, overall, the sheer passion of the piece.  Ticciati’s conducted struck me as perfectly fine with a tendency, like the production, to overdo the slower passages (I thought that Lensky would never actually begin the finale to the Act II scene 1) but without having anything particularly special about it.  Is he being pushed too fast?

So this evening never quite reached its potential and at times was deeply frustrating.  And I’m afraid much of this was Holten shouting “Me, Me, Me” at key stages.  I wish I thought it boded well for his tenure here.

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