The sense of excitement that permeated the bars and foyers of The Royal Opera House before the curtain rose on the first night of last Monday’s new staging of Eugene Onegin was palpable. Not only was this the first new offering of 2013, but more importantly it marked the stage debut of the company’s director of opera, Kasper Holten. He’s had his feet under the table for eighteen months, and in that time has embraced social media, given the impression of being very much a ‘hands-on’ director and has outlined plans for contemporary opera at the House up until 2020. All exciting stuff, so when it was announced last year that rather than revive the late Stephen Pimlott’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera, the money had been found for him to put a brand new staging together, there was a unanimous chorus of approval.
Given his work across continental Europe, and his stunningly original staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that thankfully has been preserved on DVD, expectations for his take on Eugene Onegin were high – possibly too high, which makes it even more depressing to have to report that the sense of excitement very quickly changed to bewilderment, and by the final curtain bitter disappointment at a staging that was not only wrong-headed, but manage to sap Tchaikovsky’s gut-wrenching opera of all passion, drama and human emotion.
How could it all go so wrong? From the outset Holten seemed to steer a course that would appeal to both sections of the audience; the traditional and the more adventurous, but in doing so succeeds in neither being traditional nor adventurous enough, and therefore manages to disappoint nearly everyone. The tepid applause at the close said it all, and I was surprised at the number of boos he and his production team were met with, but his decision to stage the entire opera as a ‘flashback’ for the older Onegin and Tatyana, adds layers of confusion to what is in essence a very simple story.
In order to facilitate this conceit we’re introduced to two extras, a young Tatyana and a young Onegin – both dancers, who emote the ‘feelings’ of their older operatic selves. Maybe this could have worked, but they way in which they blend in and out of the first scenes, sometimes being addressed by other characters, often not, muddles the story. Their addition adds an almost Brechtian sense of alienation which saps the singers of their ability to communicate directly with the audience. This effectively scuppers Tatyana’s letter scene, forcing poor Krassimira Stoyanova to be a mere observer as Vigdis Hentze Olsen as her younger self runs around the stage with a letter in her hand as if she were frantically trying to catch the last post.
The same happens in the duel scene as Simon Keenlyside wrings his hand, and is full of angst and remorse as his double dispatches Lensky. There are too many directorial glosses as well, the worst being when Holten has Gremin re-appear to eavesdrop of Tatyana and Onegin’s final parting, again this undermines any sense of dramatic tension that the two singers had built up. Visually, It has to be said that Mia Stensgaard’s set is functional, although Katrina Lindsay’s costume designs veer towards the eccentric, especially for the peasants in the first act.
Maybe if there’d been more cut and thrust to the musical performance, the staging’s shortcomings would have been less noticeable but Robin Ticciati’s conducting so woefully misses the mark and is so totally at sea with Tchaikovsky’s idiom that rather than be served a chateaubriand we have to make do with the musical equivalent of veggie burgers. Wayward tempi, lack of coordination between stage and pit and a turgid introduction to the last act’s Polonaise give notice that Tchaikovsky probably isn’t his thing, but overall this was not the standard one would expect from the music director elect of Glyndebourne.
In the title role Simon Keenlyside seems below par, and on the first night at least didn’t seem to have the necessary heft for the finale. Stoyanova possesses just the right mix of Slavic bite, allied to a rich creaminess that makes her an ideal Tatyana – if only she’d been allowed to take centre stage when required. Peter Rose is a noble Gremin, whilst there’s superb support from Diana Montague as Mme Larina, Kathleen Wilkinson as Filipyevna and Elena Maximova as a vivacious Olga.
As Lensky, Pavol Breslik delivers the best performance of the evening and was rightly the audience’s favourite. His tenor may not be huge, but he uses it immaculately – his phrasing is exemplary and he cuts a dashing figure as well. All in all though, this was a bitterly disappointing evening – let’s just hope that Holten’s rumoured staging of King Roger in a couple of years sees him return to form.