Yevgeny Onegin - Opera Holland Park, 13 July 2012
Proof that opera companies never talk to each other. With recent stagings by English Touring Opera (conventional but revelatory) and ENO (best forgotten) cutting into each other's audiences, Eugene Onegin is the opera of the year. Now Opera Holland Park enter the fray.
Some sharp characterisations and stunning singing compensate for Daniel Slater's over-ambitious WW1-plus-flashback update, which begins with the older Onegin wandering through a once-grand ballroom abandoned to Russia's wintery elements (not dissimilar this year from London in July).
He recalls the happier times of his first encounters with the Larin family, their carefree existence marred only by the intervention of an presciently truculent Peasant Chorus. With the rain hammering down on the canvas and a pervasive chill, some of more optimistically-dressed audience members must have coveted the overcoat Mark Stone slipped on to signify flashback sequences.
To add another layer of confusion, Tatyana's name-day party is recalled from her perspective rather than his, as a sort of hallucination. Repeatedly blindfolded, she pulls the mask from her eyes to see Onegin in front of her every time.
The party is filled with officers home from the front. Their corpses then litter a confusing live/flashback duel scene, reminding the now-remorseful Onegin that not everyone has the luxury of a frivolous death. Eugene Onegin shouldn't be a difficult opera to follow, but my companion, a first-timer who hadn't checked out the synopsis, was so baffled by this point that a swift run-through was required in the interval.
For the final act, the grand panelling is swathed in Constructivist banners and the ball becomes a Communist Party parade. In this least convincing part of the update, Prince Gremin is transformed into a Soviet apparatchik, which makes nonsense of both the words and his stately old-fashioned music, not to mention Onegin's playboy-to-bourgeois trajectory.
The update/flashback concept inevitably recalls Stefan Herheim's recent and far more successful treatment, which was marked by narrative clarity and a more logical relocation of the ending to the contemporary world of the oligarchs.
Despite Onegin's omnipresence, the evening very much belonged to Anna Leese, the sparkling Tatyana. Her girlish, unaffected voice projected through the problematic acoustic with no difficulty at all, yet it has the natural, intimate quality of a private whisper. After one too many grandstanding divas in the role, it was a rare pleasure to hear a singer who could bring the 'sad, bookish' Tatyana to life in all her teenage passions.
Mark Stone's voice is perhaps a shade too light for Onegin but both his singing and the anguished silent reacting required by the flashback concept were executed with distinction. Hannah Pedley's luxuriant and rock-steady tones created an unusually deep-voiced Olga. On the plus side, this made a valuable contrast with the featherlight Anna Leese, but the weight of her voice and its slow-moving quality didn't quite chime with Olga's flippancy and vivacity.
Peter Auty's Italianate tones perfectly captured Lensky's simple open-hearted impulsiveness - as with Anna Leese, I was reminded for once that this character is just eighteen years old. Madame Larina and Filippyevna were splendidly characterised by Anne Mason and Elizabeth Sikora, and Graeme Broadbent was a more sprightly Gremin than usual.
Alexander Polianichko was last heard in these parts conducting Cherevichki at the Royal Opera House. Though sometimes short on pace and detail he conjured, particularly in the dance sequences, an authentically Russian flavour.