Thursday, 18 July 2019

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Pyotr Illiych Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Buxton, 2019)

Buxton International Festival, 2019

Adrian Kelly, Jamie Manton, Shelley Jackson, Angharad Lyddon, David Webb, George Humphreys, Gaynor Keeble, Ceri Williams, Joshua Bloom, Joe Doody, Christopher Cull, Phil Wilcox

Buxton Opera House - 10th July 2019

The Buxton Festival usually concentrates on presenting rarely heard works, and for their 40th anniversary two or three works that you are unlikely to see performed anywhere else, and a good bit of imagination and variety in the programming too. A work like Eugene Onegin wouldn't normally fit on the bill, but if you are going to put on a more familiar opera to appeal to a wider audience then Tchaikovsky's undisputed masterpiece is a good choice. Buxton put on a fabulous production too, one that didn't strive to impose any extravagant reinterpretation, but rather focussed on the mood and undercurrents that give the work its extraordinary character.

There are any number of ways of portraying that underlying character of doomed romance (not least Tchaikovsky's own horrendous experience of it) or the underlying Russian traits in Pushkin's hugely important work of Russian literature. Buxton's production however isn't interested in going for any deep Stefan Herheim or Krzysztof Warlikowski explorations and deconstructions of the work, but on first glance Justin Nardella's set designs did at least seem to reference Robert Carsen's NY Met production. With a stage strewn with autumnal leaves and back screen glowing with colours, the focus seems to be on the light and the seasons, factors that unquestionably exert an enormous influence on the work.

The luminous back panel might change colour to reflect the seasons and moods, turning green when Lensky quarrels with Onegin in jealousy over his perceived flirtation with Olga, wintry white while they turn up for their duel, and blood red when Lensky is killed, but Buxton's production has more to it than just colour coding and it recognises that there is more to Tchaikovsky's score than fluctuations of mood. There's another dominant character that suffuses the whole work and that's its dark melancholic reflection on romance and the twists of fate and time that swirl people in and out of each other's lives, exerting a huge tug that can disrupt the larger patterns of life and emotional stability.

Or, to put that force into more recognisable terms, it's the power of love, but it's wrong to just see Eugene Onegin as a tragic romantic melodrama or indeed to put the emphasis just on the romance. It is surely one of the most heartrending tragi-romantic works you can imagine, and only Massenet's Werther comes close. Actually Massenet's opera is perhaps the closest comparable work for how it is also tied to the seasons, to love out of time with the seasons. Tatyana and Onegin's love has the potential to be boundless, a love like no other, but perhaps all love has that potential were we not human and subject to other forces, to time, to our own weaknesses, to our own lack of self-awareness and inability to foresee what is ahead, or perhaps allow that potential to be stifled by looking too far ahead in anticipation. Life too has its own rhythms that we only see in retrospect.

Quite how you put that into music - along with all the momentous character of Pushkin's work - is something only the genius and personal experience of Tchaikovsky could have done without unnecessary explanation or elaboration, but those characteristics certainly arose out of the elegant and well-performed Buxton production. Somehow Jamie Marton's direction managed to capture all these moods tied into seasons, the sense of melancholic reflection, the fatality of a doomed romance and the tides of time all within its design and performances. In contrast to the Robert Carsen light-box production, the tone of Justin Nardella's set design is actually very dark, the Larin house all black walls and floor, with mirrors when indoors that only reflected the darkness inward.

With period costumes, it managed to look both elegant and austere, elegant in terms of the outward manners, the means by which characters want to present themselves, while the world around them is much less controllable. Those outside factors are depicted in other ways, Tatyana feeling the presence of dark silent figures watching, pressing in on her, closing her down, Onegin faced with a mirror of self-reflection that he can't see past. With extras and chorus play their part, including sweepers who pushed the leaves and the snow past in choreographed rhythms, all of this feeding into an expression of vast forces at work and clashing in the opera.

Of course nowhere is that more effective than in the music itself. I don't think the Northern Symphony Orchestra's playing was the most sweepingly lush and romantic version of Eugene Onegin I've heard, but while it is nice to hear the glorious elegance of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melancholic melodies and themes, conductor Adrian Kelly made the case that there should be a little tug or barb of rawness behind them. The test of the effectiveness of this is in how the music works hand-in-hand with the production to stir up the deepest feelings in the work that cannot be expressed in words alone. Truly Tchaikovsky finds the heart of Pushkin's narrative and character that connects on a more direct emotional level with the audience.

If there are any caveats to be applied to the production, it's in the understandable necessity to sing the work in English. If you can't get Russian singers or singers experienced in singing Russian, it can be difficult to get the necessary expression in Eugene Onegin. English is not a perfect match, no matter how good the translation and its fitting to the cadences of the music, but on the other hand, it was good to be able to listen and see the detail that the cast brought to performances without the distraction of surtitles. Perhaps surtitles were more necessary for the quartets, ensembles and choruses, but even there the overlapping expressions are conveyed more by the delivery and harmony than what is said in the words.

Even with the libretto translated a little stiffly in English, the singing was excellent. The main roles were handled exceptionally well by Shelley Jackson and George Humphreys above and beyond the vocal delivery. You must feel sympathy for both Tatyana and Onegin. It's not just naive young girl meeting aloof arrogant self-obsessed man, but there is great depth to both, the tragedy being that they both come to recognise this at times when it's too late to do anything about it. The performances however were excellent right across the board, Angharad Lyddon's Olga and David Webb's Lensky bringing another essential character and tone to the work, Gaynor Keeble's Larina and Ceri Williams's Filipyevena bringing another vital perspective on how love is ignited and dies as time and life exert other forces and pressures on it. This was consequently a beautifully moody Eugene Onegin that stirred deeply.

Links: Buxton International Festival