If Tchaikovsky had not been so smitten with the character of Tatyana, the dramatic arc of (let's stick to the usual moniker) Eugene Onegin might have been clearer. As the title suggests, the drama's central perspective really needs to be that of the eponymous hero, not the dreamy girl who too late becomes the girl of his dreams; yet Onegin himself is little more than a cipher in Act One while Tatyana's finely-etched personality not only dominates the action but holds the stage alone for a 20-minute scena (her celebrated ‘letter' scene).
All flows well dramatically until Tchaikovsky uses the duel with Lensky (suitor to Tatyana's sister Olga) to shift the focus onto Onegin himself. By then the opera is half over and the audience's emotional investment remains with the idealistic young bookworm.
My point here is to take issue with director Daniel Slater's accretion of a ‘memory play' element to the episodic plot. By slotting silent ‘I've-been-here-before' flashbacks and dual time-frames into a tale whose dramatic point of view is already split two ways, the audience is tempted to give up altogether on engaging with Pushkin's characters. It is a directorial misjudgement that leaves the singers with a great deal of remedial work to do.
Slater advances the action by eighty-odd years to the period immediately preceding the Russian Revolution. Amid striking designs by Leslie Travers that simultaneously evoke snow, shrouds and dust-sheets, the visual tone is Chekhov-meets-Pasternak: civilians mingle with uniformed soldiers (à la Three Sisters) at the Larina family ball, just before a queasy Monsieur Triquet butts in to serenade Tatyana with the neo-revolutionary intensity of Pavel Antipov in Doctor Zhivago. By Act Three, five years on, there is a new order afoot and the stage is flooded with Soviet imagery.
At the opening performance Anna Leese's Tatyana, a particularly taxing role, grew in stature act by act. From young fantasist to adult woman in full command of her destiny, Leese's dramatic evolution could put many non-singing actors to shame, while her singing grew ever stronger and more idiomatic: a powerful sound untouched by stridency. She was well matched by Hannah Pedley's playful Olga and Elizabeth Sikora's sardonic Filippyevna.
As Lensky, the man of passion, Peter Auty had a vocally effortful opening scene but by Act Two (which his character dominates) he had recovered his form and delivered a plangent account of the tenor's soliloquy. Mark Stone's Onegin, by contrast, never really got going. Had the director asked him to behave throughout as though observing his younger self in flashback? Certainly, despite some committed singing he never fully shed his mood of detachment. Graeme Broadbent (vocally secure but not particularly idiomatic) was a strutting Prince Gremin, erect of posture and given to illustrating his rhetoric with those angular gestures beloved of Totalitarian speech-makers.
Thanks to the antiphonal possibilities of the venue the OHP Chorus made a striking impact (despite comedy beards for the men and ill-advised nightdresses for the women), while the City of London Sinfonia played superbly under Alexander Polianichko – albeit with a string section that was several desks short of a Tchaikovskian complement.
Many directors have been defeated by the extreme width of the Holland Park stage, but not Daniel Slater. He has embraced the acreage and uses it to create some striking stage pictures. His fascinating production, whose reach undoubtedly exceeds its grasp, will please many, puzzle some and infuriate a few, but no one will go away feeling short-changed by it.