Opera Holland Park 2022 Review: Eugene Onegin

Julia Burbach’s New Production Probes the Psychological Hinterlands of Tchaikovsky’s Masterwork

By Benjamin Poore
(Image credit: © Lidia Crisafulli)

Julia Burbach directs a new production of “Eugene Onegin” at Opera Holland Park, Tchaikovsky’s passionate realisation of Alexander Pushkin’s classic Romantic verse novel. Bookish Tatyana falls for the lofty, Darcy-ish Onegin, a dashing figure but also a rebarative one. He lets her down gently – thinking he has done the honorable thing, which he both has and hasn’t – but his arrogance and preening nature lead to a feud with Lensky that kills the latter. Too late, he realizes he does love Tatyana – or so he thinks – and she chooses to stay with her actual husband instead.

It’s a piece about people’s inability to grasp their own nature, and their lack of vision when it comes to their effect on others – as well as stultifying, idiotic bloody-mindedness that characterizes men’s pride in a society where honor is the ultimate currency (as a superb program note by Thomas Dixon discusses). 

Haunting Visions

Burbach’s production is relatively traditional in setting and costume – we are recognizably in nineteenth-century Russia – but boldly imaginative in execution. Designs by takis frame the stage with dried out reeds, evoking the bucolic setting of the piece but also a sense of decay and waste, identifiable with Onegin himself perhaps, of life drying up before our eyes. Large cream-colored colonnades are moved around the rear portion of the stage to create interiors and exteriors, with doors that Onegin tries to flee through at the end of the party scene, mobbed by the guests, and which he cowers behind when listening to Lensky’s aria that follows. They have a funereal, monumental quality. The spinning set gives the piece the feeling of a maze – psychological and social – with occasionally lurid lighting by Robert Price pushing surreal, even nightmarish buttons.

The production creates space for the interiority that animates Tatyana and Onegin. In the former’s opening scene she literally manifests her ideal man in the person of Onegin, who also stalks about adoringly in the Letter scene. For both her and Onegin people are props – in Tatyana’s case they are emanations of her literary sensibility, and in his they are puppets for the pleasure of a bored man whose development seems troublingly arrested or distorted. After Lensky is killed in the duel, he haunts Onegin at the ball like Banquo at the feast; at times the naturalistic look breaks to make the chorus and bystanders expressions of his inner conflicts and horrors too. A careful balance is struck by the weight of external reality and its obligation against the complex inner lives that Tchaikovsky animates in the piece. 

Challenges come from the set, as is the case in this large space. The opening domestic scenes don’t quite have the comfy intimacy one might hope for, and feel somewhat distant placed at the back of the stage; the apron at the front is reserved for the very final confrontation, for the most part, and one wonders if we couldn’t use it to get to know the characters a bit better earlier on in this cavernous acoustic. In bigger scenes this was not a problem, acoustically or dramatically – the Opera Holland Park Chorus sang with clarity and focus despite the nature of the space, and were well-coordinated despite the considerable dramatic demands placed on them and Tchaikovsky’s music. 

Jo Meredith’s choreography sparkles in the ball scenes, with nary a foot put wrong in the various waltzes and polonaise, a tripartite division of the stage creating room for a host of miniature dramas that feel earthy and unforced. Most of all they animate a forbiddingly large space and give it a vibrancy that does not however feel over-busy. Sudden slow-motion sequences in the midst of Triquet’s aria show remarkable physical discipline from the chorus and add to the production’s dreamlike feel. A badminton game even unfolds stage left, without the shuttlecock ending up the orchestra pit; perhaps an ironic send-up or presaging of the deadly duel that Lensky and Onegin will foolishly manufacture for each other, and a reminder of how precarious civility is in this world. 

Dramatic Refinement

Samuel Dale Johnson sings the title role with terrific vocal and dramatic refinement. His arrogance is a symptom of a troubled and distressed man rather than a crude flaw; we feel his terror and shame in the course of the final scenes, and his desperation. Vocally Dale Johnson shows off a beautiful long legato, delivered with effortless condescending grace in his meeting with Tatyana, and polished timbre that oozes charm and, well, idle wealth. That evening he somewhat ran out of steam in the final scene, having to forgo the great climactic top G that is the essence of despair in music (Tchaikovsky’s speciality). In the closing moments he was audibly rather run down and a little hoarse, but it is testament to his qualities as an actor that this was styled out with real grace, and felt a reflection of Onegin’s broken down state. 

Anush Hovhannisyan brings a powerful voice to the earlier scenes, which could probably be a little more bookish and naive, and her voice tended to drift a little flat over the course of the evening. But the dramatic and vocal high points were a supremely well-executed letter scene, her sound taking on real intensity and focus, as if her sexuality and imagination were fighting their way out of her. Her final scene with Onegin saw this power refined and refocused into a resolute moral dignity, with an absolutely blazing final note that showed Onegin that the game really was up. 

Thomas Atkins’ Lensky was a vocal treat. As a counterpart ot Onegin he was more silky and feathery early on, with an earnest intensity and ability to spin long, honeyed lines. As the opera progresses and he fights with Onegin, a new kind of physicality came into play – never barking or yelping mind – but with more edge and more gunmetal. There were moments of miraculous quiet in his pre-duel aria that belied the size of the space, his vulnerability glinting softly in the night air. 

Matthew Stiff’s Prince Gremin was oaky and effulgent, with a lived-in sound that suggests the wisdom of age, and a settled sensibility utterly unlike that of skittish, standoffish Onegin. He sank into his low notes like a comfortable leather chair.

Joseph Buckmaster sings Monsieur Triquet, whose paean to Tatyana is delivered without parody, neuroses, or hammy-ness – a moment of gentle intimacy in what can be a scene played for laughs or indeed cruel fun.

Amanda Roocroft – a fine Tatyana in her own right in previous years – is luxury casting for a clear-sighted Madame Larina; her scene on the nature of ageing with Kathleen Wilkinson’s Filippyevna is sensationally drawn. 

Lada Valešová conducted the City of London Sinfonia with a tight leash, tautly rhythmic – perhaps somewhat inflexibly in moments that called for a little more give, such as Lensky’s aria, or indeed the shifting emotional sands of the prologue. But that relative strictness paid off in more animated sequences, where she brought the orchestra off into Tchaikovsky’s thrilling sudden silences with razor-sharp exits. A reduced orchestration for the more slender forces the house is currently fielding trades off agility – and a little balance in the of the strings against woodwinds and brass – for weight, and we were forced to forego some of the score’s lushness.

But all in all this is a rewarding and engaging evening of opera, in an understated but pointed vision of a classic show. 


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