Expectations ran high for ENO’s new staging of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece. Not only was it music director Ed Gardner’s first appearance of the season but this staging of Eugene Onegin had been allocated to one of the country’s most respected theatre and opera directors, Deborah Warner. Throw into the mix a mouth-watering cast and you have all the ingredients for a resounding success, so it’s good to report that a suitably elated first night audience greeted the performance with a thunderous ovation and rightly so, for this staging is yet another feather in ENO’s cap and continues their unbroken run of successes that started with Pountney’s The Passenger, and continued with Fiona Shaw’s Figaro and Barrie Kosky’s Castor and Pollux.
I can’t remember such an exciting start to a season – but what’s most telling is that all four directors mentioned above know their art inside out, and boy, does it show! Although it pains me to dredge these memories up – Sally Potter’s Carmen, Jo Davies’ Aida, Rupert Goold’s Turandot, Mike Figgis’Lucrezia Borgia and Rufus Norris’ Don Giovanni (which incomprehensibly is making a return next season), it just proves that you need special skills to direct an opera, which none of these had. Thank God sanity has returned to St Martin’s Lane!
Within Tom Pye’s sumptuous and evocative designs, Warner proves over and over again that traditional doesn’t need to be boring, fusty or conformist. She draws strong, telling performances from all the principals and tells the story plainly, but in so doing illuminates the text to perfection. There’s no revisionism or particular insight, but she keeps the audience engaged with the characters and the action is a times viscerally thrilling, most noticeably in the first scene of Act II when Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, incredibly moving, Lensky’s introspection before the duel, and unbearably poignant, as witnessed in the painful denouement between Onegin and Tatyana.
Of course without a top-drawer cast, the results might have been very different, but ENO field as strong a line up of principals as one could hope for – indeed having Diana Montague as Madame Larina and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Filippyena is luxury casting in the extreme. As expected they both give beautifully etches cameos, whilst Brindley Sherratt is superb as Prince Gremin and Claudia Huckle makes her mark as Olga.
But it’s with the three main characters where the real excitement lies. Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen is nothing short of sensational as Onegin and not only does his singing take on a white hot intensity as the evening progresses but he manages to catch the character's insouciance which makes Onegin so objectionable from the start. His descent from buttoned-up prig to dishevelled obsessive is chartered unerringly realistically and his diction, given that he is not a native English speaker, is faultless.
He is ably partnered by Toby Spence’s forthright Lensky who gives one of the finest performances I’ve heard from this remarkable artist. His singing takes on a heroic edge when required, but it was his touching reminisces of his friendship with Onegin before the duel where his true artistry shone, making this the musical highlight of the evening.
Amanda Echalaz may not be the most touching or vulnerable Tatyana that I’ve seen but she charts the path from dreamy young girl, via lovelorn teenager to grown up princess faultlessly and produces singing of vibrancy and colour to match every mood. Her voice has grown noticeably since she sang Tosca here a couple of seasons ago so it comes as no surprise that she is about to add the role of Salome to her repertoire. Her letter scene was thrillingly voiced.
In the pit Ed Gardner has one of his finest nights, and is rewarded with impassioned playing from the orchestra whilst the augmented chorus is on top form as well. Thrilling stuff!