Edinburgh International Festival
Tchaikovsky –Eugene Onegin
19:15 15-17 August
🌟🌟🌟🌟 (Four Star)
Tchaikovsky’s opera tells the story of bored socialite Eugene Onegin who visits his friend Lensky’s country estate. Lensky loves Olga, the lively, fun-loving daughter of his neighbour, Madam Larin. Olga’s sister Tatyana is shy, silent, and addicted to romantic novels. When the two men visit their neighbours Tatyana sees in Onegin the embodiment of all her dreams and tumbles head over heels in love with him. She confesses her love in a letter: Onegin rejects her and she is crushed.
At Tatyana’s birthday party Onegin, bored of all the gossip about him, flirts with Olga. Lensky calls his friend a seducer and challenges him to a duel. Early next morning Lensky waits for his friend to arrive: when Onegin appears, each man silently wishes their relationship could return to what it was – but they’ve gone too far: they fire, and Lensky is killed.
Onegin travels to escape the ghosts that haunt him, but is so bored he goes back to Russia. There is a grand ball in St Petersburg the night he arrives: he goes, and is astounded to see a radiant and assured young woman there – surely it can’t be Tatyana? It is: she is now the wife of a highly-honoured war hero. Onegin realises too late that he is in love with her: he confesses his love and urges her to flee with him but she, although admitting she loves him, refuses to leave her husband.
The curtain rose to reveal a rough grassy field surrounded by trees – a most effective way to underline the rural setting of the first scene, but a considerable inconvenience in the rest of the opera: Tatyana’s letter scene took place in a spotlit circle on the grass, leaving her very little room for manoeuvre, and instead of writing on sheets of paper she was reduced to annotating the book she’d been reading in the first scene, and then tearing out pages to send to Onegin. Her birthday party took place outdoors, in the same clearing in which the duel then took place. There had been extensive use of the revolve in the first two acts, so it was unlikely that the grass would be removed for the third act – instead we had an elegant sofa and two chairs on a rectangle of carpet, surrounded by grey walls, into which Onegin wandered, to be later joined by the guests at the ball. Applause greeted the removal of the walls, the furniture and the carpet while Onegin, once more alone, paced about in his love-lorn frenzy. The final confrontation between the two lovers took place where it had all begun, in the empty grassy clearing where, to cap it all, the rain started falling as the tragic parting took place.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet music is always glorious. In Eugene Onegin he wrote two gorgeous dance sections – a rustic one for Tatyana’s birthday party, a highly aristocratic one for the grand ball in St Petersburg. Alas, although we got some prancing round with rustic shrieking in act two, the whole St Petersburg section was played with not a dancer in sight: instead, Onegin paced around the sofa before all the elegantly-clad guests crammed into a very small space to watch Prince Gremin tell his friend Onegin how much he loves his wife.
The music palpitates with emotion and the orchestra plays a major part in showing what’s going on under people’s ostensibly calm exteriors. The orchestra of the Komischer Oper Berlin under their conductor Āinars Rubiķis were in the main extremely good: at times they seemed out of synch with the singers, and tended to drown the voices in the most emotionally-charged moments.
The singing was superb. Michael Nagy was a slight, intense, edgy Onegin and Natalya Pavlova a wonderfully subtle and moving Tatyana, whom it was a delight to see ‘all grown up’ and supremely confident in the third act. Maria Fiselier’s Olga was youthfully happy and flirty, driving to distraction her intense fiancé, Lensky, powerfully sung by Aleš Briscein. The ‘minor’ roles were excellently sung and acted – the whole production seemed very natural and informal, possibly too informal for the society of the time? I wondered at the extreme youthfulness of ‘old nursey’ Filipyevna, while appreciating her singing: and Dimitry Ivanschenko was loudly applauded for his brief cameo as Prince Gremin.
All in all, a good and credible production of one of my favourite operas, which the audience thought was totally wonderful – storms of applause greeted cast, conductor and orchestra at the final curtain. I think I was too distracted by the revolving lawn [and the constraints it placed on the action] and other minor details [the jars of jam, the bottle-swigging duellists] to be pulled fully into this tragedy of four young people who act unthinkingly and have to face the consequences.