Eugene Onegin - Royal Opera House, 4 February 2013
Is is possible to please all of the people all of the time? Fuelled by what should by now be in-depth knowledge of varied and esoteric Covent Garden tastes, Kasper Holten takes a brave and largely successful stab with his new Eugene Onegin.
The traditionalists are sated with a visual approximation of Imperial Russia, all lofty pillars and puffy skirts, backdrops so racily variegated with those modern video thingies they might not even notice that in Austerity Britain there's only one set to applaud.
For the chin-strokers Holten employs the modish framing device of flashback - though his deconstructionist approach is diametrically opposed to Stefan Herheim's superficially similar but contextually saturated maximalism.
In a bore-baiting silent prologue, the mature Tatyana is seen scrunching up and throwing away the letter that once meant so much to her. Then at the key moments in their lives, fifty-somethings Simon Keenlyside and Krassimira Stoyanova become wistful spectators of the young Onegin and Tatyana's dancer-doubles, echoing the melancholy undertow of the music. There's more revisionism in the pit as Robin Ticciati eschews the usual velvet-curtained melodrama for lightness and pace, eliciting some responsive and wonderfully delicate playing.
The opera's three acts are re-portioned into two. The buttock-numbing 100 minute first stretch is told from Tatyana's perspective. Her painful memories are conflated with the vivid hopes and imaginings of her bookish youth. Then, fortified by beer and crisps, we return to watch the fateful duel onwards from Onegin's eyes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
The message seems to be that we can revisit the past, but we can never change it and never escape it. At the pivotal moment in Tatyana's life, the letter scene, the young dancer physicalises Tatyana's self-imposed emotional torture while Stoyanova remembers and rues. Onegin's equivalent is the shooting of Lensky, acted out by the dancer-Onegin while Simon Keenlyside watches powerless from the side. The debris of their past lives accumulates around them - discarded books, a tree, Lensky's dead body (surely Pavol Breslik's easiest half hour's wages ever). As they part for the last time, they watch the two young dancers kissing - a shared fantasy of what could have been if their past actions could be undone.
Much hot air has circulated on the subject of looks-based casting. But, realistically speaking, however vocally ideal Keenlyside and Stoyanova are, they just don't cut it as love's young dream. Especially and imminently in HD. Holten's concept allows us to enjoy their singing without straining our credulity too far. Best of all there's a detail and psychological truth in the acting, in particular the rounded and reflective Onegin of Simon Keenlyside.
The singing was excellent all round, and idiomatic. (I will return to this in more detail when I go back for second helpings next week).
I wish I could say the same of Robin Ticciati's conducting. It would be unfair to dismiss it as pedestrian, because everything was finely crafted and beautifully detailed. But until the final bars he was afraid to ladder his pantyhose with anything approaching tension or drama. First night nerves? A future Glyndebourne music director needs to do better.
Production photos (above) Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House
Curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com
more photos to come later.....