Eugene Onegin, ENO

for a work drawn from Pushkin’s verse novel, Warner’s vision is
literary in its inspiration. Moving the action forward fifty years, from
Pushkin’s 1840s to the late-nineteenth century, the director and her
designer, Tom Pye, conjure a moving picture of Chekovian ‘twilight
moods’. The pace is gently controlled; beautifully rendered natural scene
drops unfold, like pages of a book, as we move through the chapters of the
protagonists’ lives. The visual detail and accuracy of observation
recalls Chekhov’s stylised blend of realism and romance.

Pye’s designs are sumptuous and surprising. The imposing ballroom
columns of the third act, through which polonaising couples burst, justly won
an instantaneous gasp of applause; cleverly, as the suppressed emotions of the
social interior are exchanged for the freedom of the natural exterior, the
splendid pillars become terrace colonnades – their majesty emphasising
the tragic frailty of the protagonists. Most impressive was the silvery
lakeside expanse of the second act, all glistening ice, wintry branches and
shimmering mist – perfectly capturing the frozen emotions of the
duellists who are alienated by jealousy, pride and convention.

The only puzzle was the vast barn of act one, which replaced the usual
winter dacha. It was not clear why members of the fairly wealthy Larin family
slept in what looked like an outbuilding. And, such an immense expense,
stretching into the wings and up to the flies, was not the ideal location for
Tatiana’s letter scene, which requires a sense of intimacy and
constraint. Jean Kalman’s striking lighting did help: violent shadows
loomed ominously behind the tormented heroine, and the gleaming sunrise which
heralded the end of the act was almost painful in its gradually deepening
intensity. The designs were complemented by Chloe Obolensky’s detailed
naturalistic costumes.

Of the strong cast assembled, it was Toby Spence, as a fervently
passionately Lensky who shone brightest. A sustained and utterly convincing
dramatic interpretation was matched by a faultless vocal performance. In
particular, in his act 2 aria preceding the duel, Spence delivered an exquisite
pianissimo passage of reflection, poignantly recognising and
regretting that even genuine fraternal love could not prevent pointless
annihilation of life. The tensions and antagonisms between Lensky and Onegin
were visually suggested by the taut diagonal line that the men formed as they
ranged their rifles, Lensky sited to the rear of the stage, already receding
from life. Warner’s attention to detail was impressive in this scene;
telling touches, such as Onegin’s removal of his hat, subtly shaped the
audience’s response.

Onegin_ENO_2011_01.gifAmanda Echalaz as Tatiana and Claudia Huckle as Olga

Lensky’s romantic ardour was such that it is hard to imagine how he
could have formed such a strong friendship with the coolly aloof Onegin of
Audun Iversen! It is a role that the Norwegian baritone has tackled to acclaim
several times before; in this production, his Onegin is not a dastardly villain
but wavers between blunt honesty and immature self-indulgence. He is bored by
and frustrated with stifling social conventions. Although a little constrained
to begin, by the final act Iversen’s beautiful mellow tone, with its rich
low notes and free, relaxed in upper register, went some way to winning the
audience’s sympathy for this flawed dreamer.

Having recently taken audiences by storm as Tosca at both of London’s
main houses, Amanda Echalaz’s Tatiana was a little disappointing. There
is no doubting the wonderful strength and depth of her voice, and her secure
chest notes are impressive. Tatiana’s elegiac passion was powerfully
conveyed. But, Echalaz’s tone was rather one-dimensional. She has
admirable stamina and there was lots of power, but not much light and shade.
There were some moments of gleam, but on the whole both more radiance and more
fragility were required in order to convey Tatiana’s tragic vulnerability
and emotional frailty. There were some intonation problems too, particularly a
tendency for the fortissimos to stray sharpwards.

Onegin_ENO_2011_03.gifAuden Iversen as Onegin and Amanda Echalaz as Tatiana

The principals were well supported by the minor roles. Diana Montague
(Larina) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Filippyevna) were superb, while Claudia
Huckle was a lively, impassioned Olga. Brindley Sherratt, who impressed in
ENO’s recent Simon Boccanegra, displayed gravitas and honesty as
the elderly Gremin. In the cameo role of Monsieur Triquet, Adrian Thompson
almost stole the show!

The thunder of the enlarged chorus in the climactic moments was rich and
thrilling, although they were a little untidy at times. The stage was crowded,
with children and dancers adding to the maelstrom. Kim Brandstrup’s
choreography combined stylised realisation of Russian peasant culture enriched
with modernist gesture; both in the opening act and the later ballroom the
dances served to establish cultural mannerisms and social hierarchies.

Onegin_ENO_2011_05.gifClaudia Huckle as Olga and Toby Spence as Lensky

Edward Gardner conducted with consummate appreciation of the spirit and pace
of the opera: he and Warner allow space for emotive silences, most tellingly in
letter scene. Pauses between scenes and acts suggest that while life hangs
suspended, later everything will inevitably change. Sudden surges of rapturous
orchestral outpouring are contained within controlled musical forms, as the
repressed souls fleetingly give vent to romantic yearnings. Gardner’s
attention to detail is masterly. Nothing is over-stated. Tchaikovsky’s
score is not so interested in external worlds but in the characters’
inner development, just as in Chekhov’s plays the poetic power is hidden
beneath surfaces, and so reveals the true depths of human experience.

Martin Pickard’s translation is rather mundane at times although he
captures some of the original’s lyricism in the set pieces.
Pushkin’s tale may be a fairly clichÈd account of unrequited love, missed
opportunities and the conflict between passion and convention, but it is a tale
with which all can surely identify. If despair and hopelessness dominate, there
is still radiance amid the torture. From quiet beginnings, Warner allows huge
human passions to emerge. She simply lets the music tell its story.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Amanda Echalaz as Tatiana [Photo by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
product_by=Eugene Onegin: Audun Iversen; Vladimir Lensky: Toby Spence; Tatiana: Amanda Echalaz; Olga: Claudia Huckle; Filippyevna: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Monsieur Triquet: Adrian Thompson; Madame Larina: Diana Montague; Zaretsky: David Stout; Prince Gremin: Brindley Sherratt; A Captain: Paul Napier-Burrows; Peasant Singer: David Newman. Director: Deborah Warner. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Orchestra of English National Opera. Set designer: Tom Pye. Lighting designer: Jean Kalman. Costume: Chloe Obolensky. Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup. English National Opera, Coliseum, London, Saturday 12th November 2011.
product_id=Above: Amanda Echalaz as Tatiana

Photos by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera