Eugene Onegin - English National Opera, 23 November 2011
What a dull evening Deborah Warner has managed to make from this opera of almost infinite interpretive possibilities.
Unwilling to risk any sort of perspective, she's fallen back on a lavishly decorated blend of BBC bonnet drama and dinosaur-age Met fare (no surprise that's where it's ultimately headed). None of the parts are drawn strongly enough to call it character-driven either. A brand new production, it already has the look of an under-rehearsed revival. Edward Gardner's exquisitely calibrated but dispassionate conducting just reinforced the sense of intellectual and emotional detachment.
The only one of the lengthy set changes worth waiting for is the second act duel scene. A bleached tree lying across an shiny ice-like floor makes a suitably stark backdrop for the fatal event.
Elsewhere, there's a degree of disregard for practicalities that borders on ineptitude. For the first act, the Larins' country house becomes a barn - literally. Not a barn-like space. A barn. The hay blows in from outside. Was there no other way to make it clear they live in the country? Crates of ornamental marrows are lugged into what everyone says is the 'garden', but is also a communal dance floor and Tatyana's bedroom. Tatyana sits at the table and asks Filipievna to lay out paper and pen on the table; she leaves them on the bed. Did anyone read the libretto? I don't mind this sort of thing in more conceptual staging, where odd words are subordinate to overriding ideas. But if a director insists on slavishly-detailed pictorial realism, I do expect a garden to look like a garden and a table to look like a table.
The final act is dominated by colossal pillars straddling an otherwise empty stage - almost as annoying as being seated behind one. The set, inexplicably, got its own round of applause, but who holds a ball in a cloister? Luckily the dancers avoided any collisions.
Some excellent singers were cast, but they weren't all in the right opera. The steel edged soprano of Amanda Echalaz was unwisely deployed as Tatyana. Echalaz is a singer I do like a lot, but her vocal qualities suggest Salome or Lady Macbeth, not winsome innocents like Tatyana.
Audun Iversen's Onegin was beautifully and evenly delivered - perhaps too evenly. Although his velvety baritone is attractive, the lack of variegation grew monotonous. It's something I noticed in his Covent Garden Albert (Werther) too. Who knows how deliberately he recalled Pushkin's characterisation as described by Tatyana, an empty man made up from the bits and pieces of characters in books.
Toby Spence sang heartily and received the biggest ovation, but he wasn't up to his usual top form. More head prefect than sensitive poet, his singing was blemished by excessive vibrato.
Diana Montague and Catherine Wyn-Rogers clucked and dithered in scene-stealing style as Madame Larina and Filipievna, but the most complete performance overall came from David Stout as Zaretski. A solid and expressive bass-baritone, with big low notes and an easy extension, he clearly put across not just the text, but what remains unspoken in the tangle of passion and etiquette that is the duel scene. And that points towards what this production as a whole is missing - a sense that there's anything more to Eugene Onegin than the notes and the words on the page.
This evening's show was recorded for Radio 3 broadcast on Saturday 26 November at 6pm.
Incidentally, ENO need to make it a lot clearer to ticket buyers that their shows are in English - a group of Russians I spoke to at the interval were very disappointed not to hear their native tongue on stage.
production photos (above) Neil Libbert / ENO
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com