Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin
Scottish Opera, 2018
Stuart Stratford, Oliver Mears, Samuel Dale Johnson, Natalya Romaniw, Peter Auty, Sioned Gwen Davies, Alison Kettlewell, Anne-Marie Owens, Graeme Broadbent, Christopher Gillett, Alexey Gusev, James Platt, Matthew Kimble
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 28 June 2018
Pushkin's Eugene Onegin has been praised as "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" but it's one of those works that manages to encapsulate the characteristics and behaviours of a nation within a story of the intimate sadness and tragic fate that life holds in store for many of us. Pushkin wrote his own tragic Russian story, killed in a duel over a romantic dispute like Lensky in his great masterpiece, and Tchaikovsky poured his own personal, marital and emotional struggles into his work here, and the personal input of both creators can be deeply felt in Eugene Onegin.
It's not much to ask to have that reflected and expect to feel deeply moved by a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and while it rarely fails to hit the mark, there are many ways of approaching the subject. At one extreme you can have Stefan Herheim turning the work indeed into "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" complete with cosmonauts, Red Army troops and a dancing bear taking it right up to the present day, making the point that the Russian character - as well as the essential human character - remains largely unchanged. At the other minimalist extreme, Robert Carsen ties the emotional impact of the work and the course of a life to the colours of the seasons. Others, such as Kyzysztof Warlikowski, have focussed on how much of Tchaikovsky's life and troubled sexual identity can be clearly mapped onto the characters in the story.
Oliver Mears, the current artistic director of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and former director of NI Opera, makes a return visit with his Scottish Opera production of Eugene Onegin and doesn't attempt anything quite as radical as the above examples, but in another way it taps into the idea of simple lives caught up in something greater. What it does manage to do is grasp that sense of the scope of life and love, of the personal and intimate placed within the greater context of life, memory and the passing of time; the madness and insensitivity of youth that can have an impact that resonates through a whole life and that we can only grasp the enormity of it when it's far too late to change anything.
Mears employs a simple enough device to get this across, having the silent figure of an elderly Tatyana recall and rewatch a significant event in her youth that would forever determine its future direction, all of it taking place in a single room of fading memory. I was immediately resistant to the idea, since the ending in Tchaikovsky's opera - and the melancholic tone of the work throughout - already places the work into the context of memory and the passing of time. Tatyana's rejection of the repentant Onegin at the end of the opera, even though she is clearly in love with him, is an immensely powerful conclusion that could hardly be delivered in a more effective manner with the addition of another rejection of Tatyana finally tearing up the letter and forever setting the matter to rest.
On the other hand it's quite plausible that the matter between Tatyana and Onegin might certainly be over, but both will still carry the regret for the rest of their lives. If it doesn't make the conclusion any more devastating, it succeeds in driving the point home, particularly as Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra deliver the final blows mercilessly after succeeding in holding the audience in a state of romantic melancholy for the larger part of the performance, conserving those energies for the other real moments of emotional impact; in Onegin's rejection of Tatyana's love letter and in the tragic and foolhardy death of Lensky in the duel.
There are other ways of showing how we can end up paying for the folly of youth later in life, but most obviously it's Onegin who carries this burden. One of the best ways I've seen this done is in the 2013 Royal Opera House production, where Onegin is led during the Polonaise on a dance through a constant progression of women that gradually wears him down with the passing of the years. It leaves him in the perfect state to have his eyes opened to the opportunities of real love and stability in his life that have been lost. Interestingly, with an elderly Tatyana coming back to a dusty, decaying Larin mansion, once filled with life, Mears's direction makes you consider everything else that has been lost over time. For the first time really the Lensky's tragedy carried through for me, and I wondered what had become of Olga and the direction her life subsequently must have taken. Would Lensky's death have stayed with her or would the memory have faded with time and the other needs of life?
It's essential that, like Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the reader or listener identify with the characters in the story and see their lives in that kind of context; Onegin as tragedy plus time. By casting the net of time further - Herheim's production certainly does this, and so too does Kasper Holten's doubling of the older Tatyana and Onegin looking back on their younger counterparts - Oliver Mears captures that sense of the work not so much as an encyclopaedia of Russian life, but just an encyclopaedia of life. There are many perspectives you can place on Eugene Onegin, but the most important one is what the individual listener and spectator brings to it; and the passing of time, the changes it brings and the regrets that still sting are something that everyone can relate to.
That's not to say that the viewer has to do all the work. Far from it. While the perspective Oliver Mears introduces sets the work in a wider context, Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra permit the listener to feel the heat of life and the complexity of sentiments associated with it in every note of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melodies and dances. The singing and characterisation are critical however, particularly for Tatyana and Onegin, and the casting was nigh on perfect here. Natalya Romaniw was simply stunning. If she was a little blank and cool in her acting, frozen mortification works well for Tatyana, and all the yearning was there in a superbly sung performance. She had a perfect counterfoil in Samuel Dale Johnson's Onegin, initially aloof (making an entrance on a live horse!) and little by little falling prey to his own personality flaws. There were certainly no flaws in his singing. The quality of singing and characterisation of Olga and Lensky by Sioned Gwen Davies and Peter Auty was evident in how much you cared about their fates.
Eugene Onegin can sometimes risk being a little aloof and cool in its mannerisms of detachment if the music and singing aren't all perfectly aligned to bring out the true sentiments. That necessarily goes beyond the principals, the larger picture of life and the impact of time extending to the supporting characters, from Madame Larina and the nurse Filippyevna's views and life experiences, to Prince Gremin's reflections on married life and love later in life. The chorus, the dancers, also all contribute to the sense of life viewed comprehensively in all its richness, but with an underlying melancholy for the impact of that time exerts on it. Everything that is great about Eugene Onegin comes together perfectly in this Scottish Opera production.
Links: Scottish Opera