Thursday 5 September 2013

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Royal Opera House, 2013

Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson, Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The very nature of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present. The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret. As such, it has the near impossible task of needing performers capable of expressing both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience in the same person and - as if that wasn't difficult enough - express both positions almost simultaneously. Tchaikovsky's remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult.

If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts. In the opera house it's not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands.  For the Royal Opera House production, Kasper Holten has opted for using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana, employing dancers to play their younger selves, and having them both on the stage together in order to allow those interlocking sentiments of youth and experience to play out simultaneously in reflection.  As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it's a valid idea, but it's one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically.

It's not as if this kind of cast needs the additional dramatic support. Krassimira Stoyanova in particular is just phenomenal, delivering a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance that works well with the concept. When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova's moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart's painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those contradictory sentiments. Simon Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret and unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled. The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn't work quite so well. The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.

Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin. The Polonaise is more than just a beautiful interlude here, throwing Keenlyside's Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he attempts to grasp but is unable to hold. Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seems like everything he touches just dies in his hands. Mia Stensgaard's set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds, colouration and lighting that enhances the moods - is also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work. Tchaikovsky's score is superbly performed by the orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Robin Ticciati, who recognises its majestic romanticism but also its aching intimacy.

The colours and tones of the production design come over well on the Blu-ray, as does the music and singing. In addition to an optional introduction and interval feature, Kasper Holten provides a full length director's commentary, which is uncommon on an opera BD. I don't think the production needs explaining, but considering the unwarranted criticism the production received when shown at Covent Garden, the director clearly feels the need to clarify his intentions.  Perhaps this is another case like the ROH Robert le Diable, which may indeed not have worked in the theatre, but its qualities can better be appreciated in close-up on film. The booklet contains a lovely insightful essay on the work itself by Marina Frolova-Walker that considers how Tchaikovsky's music expresses the content. Subtitles on the Blu-ray disc are English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Korean.