Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera

This turned out to be the new production of Tchaikovsky’s
Eugene Onegin which opened the 2016 Garsington Opera season
at Wormsley on 3 June 2016. It was an evening full of anticipation, because the
casting included two interesting role debutants with Roderick
as Onegin, and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, plus Jurgita
, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson, Oleksiy Palchykov,
Mark Wilde,
and Brindley Sherratt, with Douglas Boyd (Garsington’s artistic director)
conducting the Garsington Opera Orchestra. The designs were by Tom Piper, with Liz Ranken as movement
director/choreographer and Lina
as acrobatic choreographer.

Michael Boyd’s production was firmly set in the era of Pushkin’s
story; Tom Piper’s costumes were authentically early 19th century (the
story was written 1825 to 1833). The production was one where hats, gloves and
manners were highly important, something which can get forgotten when thinking
just about Tchaikovsky’s seethingly dramatic music, but Michael Boyd
rightly put the inner emotions in the context of a culture of outward control,
going on to explore what happens when this control breaks. But, perhaps the
most important thing to say about the production was the way it used communal
dance as an important factor. The cotillon at Madame Larina’s dance was a
real communal moment with everyone taking part: dancers, chorus and the older
supers (Community Actors). Similarly the Polonaise at Prince Gremin’s
ball was real communal moment (albeit in a different, grander style).

Not that things were slavishly naturalistic, Piper’s sets consisted
simply of five mobile units which were moved around to form a single backdrop,
or to enclose a smaller space. For the first half (Act One, and Act Two, Scene
One) we simply saw plain wooden tongue- and groove cladding and doors, evoking
the simplicity of Madame Larina’s house, for the duel scene, the rear of
the units was on display giving a starkly abstract wooden construction as
backdrop, whilst for Prince Gremin’s palace we simply had huge mirrors,
echoing the image of constantly being on show and the sense of Onegin’s
constant looking over his past.

Similarly the production style moved in and out
of naturalism, with Natalya Romaniw’s Tatyana mounting the scenery to
overlook proceedings (something repeated in the final scene of the opera when
ball-goers did the same), the way Lensky (at Madame Larina’s) and Tatyana
(at Prince Gremin’s ball) were singled out as stationary objects at the
centre of the dance, the handling of the chorus in the ball scene where they
became threatening onlookers. The scene after Tatyana’s letter scene saw
the female chorus interacting with Tatyana almost as an extension of her
thoughts, as they dressed her for the encounter with Onegin. And in the
climactic final scene, the chorus broke through the walls of the room to
threaten Onegin. Much of the movement of the scenery and props was done by the
cast themselves, and Kathleen Wilkinson’s Filippyevna brought a real
sense of character to the way she fetched and carried.

Roderick Williams was a remarkable assumption. The singer turned 50 last year,
and this might seem a little late to take on Onegin but he gave no sense of
this. It was a thoughtful performance, one completely in tune with the way
Michael Boyd emphasised the restrictions of manners and arranged marriages on
the characters. This wasn’t the most arrogant of Onegins, or the most
self-absorbed, instead it was a very human performance. For the first half of
the opera we see Onegin very much through Tatyana’s eyes, and here
Williams was all correct politeness, with a feeling of someone finding it
easier to hide behind the facade of manners. Even in their encounter after the
letter scene, it was the correct politeness with which Williams’ Onegin
treated Romaniw’s passionate yet naive Tatyana that shocked, complete
with details such as him leaning down to check (very politely) that Tatyana had

But when the break came, at the end of Madame Larina’s party, it was
devastating as the icy control snapped. After the powerful and chilling duel
scene, Michael Boyd introduced a real coup de theatre. During the opening
section of the polonaise we saw Onegin’s travels, but always he was
accompanied by the ghost of Lensky, with Oleksy Palchykov even donning dress
and wig to dance with Onegin at Prince Gremin’s ball. Rarely has the
combination of director and singer made Onegin’s opening solo at the
ball, sung directly to the audience (the first time we really hear his
thoughts) count for so much.

Natalya Romaniw created a strikingly thoughtful Tatyana, one who clearly
withdrew from society and whose calm exterior masked the emotions inside.
Romaniw had mastered the art of doing less on stage, but doing to highly
expressively so that little counted for much, and she has a very speaking
countenance where every emotion flickered across her face. She has a wonderful
lyrical dramatic voice, one that is probably going to grow, and brought a real
sense of vibrant passion to Tatyana. Her performances in both time periods
(there is a gap of six years between Acts One and Two and Act Three), were
linked by this sense of groundedness with the older Tatyana simply losing some
of the naivety of the younger. This was an enormously sympathetic, almost
ensemble performance, but one where you constantly felt Tatyana’s
presence, whether singing or not, without ever pulling focus. The letter scene
was superbly sung, and brilliantly conceived with a great feel for the
architecture. That Romaniw does not, yet, quite pull the heart strings to the
ultimate is no worry, this was a performance that can only grow and remarkably
mature assumption for this young artist.

I have to confess that when I heard him in Act One, I rather worried about the
way Oleksiy Palchykov seemed to push his voice to hardness in the upper
register, and rarely seemed to relax as an actor. But Michael Boyd cunning used
this stiffness, so that in the party at Madame Larina’s Palchykov’s
Lensky wasn’t the puppyish poet, but seemed to stiffen with resentment
and jealously until breaking point. His account of the duel scene fairly
crackled, and in his solo he showed himself to be a superbly thoughtful artist,
and I particularly loved the way he was able to thin his voice right down. The
final duet with Roderick Williams was everything you might expect, stiff, rigid
and uptight yet shot through with intense regret and emotion.

Jurgita Adamonyté made a lively, carefree Olga, and one who formed a
lovely foil to Natalya Romaniw, with the two making a superbly balanced and
complementary duet.

Louise Winter’s Madame Larina was very much the lynch-pin of the first
half. She was clearly channelling Imelda Staunton in a big way, bringing that
actor’s wonderful sense of comedy and pathos to a woman who was clearly
inhabiting the rules as a last resort against chaos, with a fussily busy manner
which was at once funny and sad. Winter made you understand the rigid obsession
with manner, and the way it made the dramatic events almost inevitable as
something has to crack. Equally important was Kathleen Wilkinson’s
Filippyevna, her body language making clear her years of devotion and service.
This was clearly not a rich household, Filippyevna spent quite a lot of time
moving just a few chairs around for those she served, and the jam making was a
very humble affair with Filippyevna calmly peeling apples.

Brindley Sherratt brought great sympathy and great resonance to his solo as
Prince Gremin. There were no novelties, and no shocks, simply a superbly
musical performance done in the context of a very fine dramatic

The smaller roles were all strongly taken. Mark Wilde was hilarious as the
pompous Monsieur Triquet, and I loved the way the chorus stood behind him,
laughing at him and echoing his gestures. Adam Temple-Smith was a peasant,
Martin Häßler was a Captain, Andrew Tipple was Zaretsky and Adam
Torrance was Guillot.

The production took full advantage of the young and talented chorus, who had a
great deal to do besides just sing. They effectively created separate
characters, with a great deal of both communal dancing and more general
movement. They both looked and sounded good, a testament to the hard work and
preparation for the season.

I have to confess that I was less convinced by the choreography for the
dancers. The acrobatic vignettes, during Onegin’s journeys between scenes
one and two in Act three, were highly effective, but elsewhere the choreography
for the six dancers was simply too fussy for my taste.

The orchestra under Douglas Boyd made gave a wonderfully lyrical account of the
score. Lithe and passionate, the performance was beautifully fluid but focussed
and controlled, so that under Douglas Boyd’s disciplined hands the
passion was there but the orchestra never came anywhere near overwhelming the

This was a superb season opener, and a demonstration of how Garsington Opera
has moved on from being an outstanding specialist in a couple of composers,
into a house where immensely thoughtful highly crafted work is being done in
all areas. This season there is Rossini’s L’Italiana in
, Mozart’s Idomeneo and Haydn’s The
to look forward to, with the prospect of Handel’s
Semele and Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande next

There is also a chance to hear and see the production of Eugene Onegin
outside of Garsington, as the production will be screened in rural coastal
areas including Skegness, Ramsgate, Burnham-on-sea, Grimsby, see for full details.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production

Director: Michael Boyd, conductor: Douglas Boyd, designer: Tom
Piper, movement director/choreographer: Liz Rankin, acrobatic choreographer:
Lina Johannsen.

Onegin: Roderick Williams, Tatyana: Natalya Romaniw, Olga:
Jurgita Adamonyte, Madame Larina: Louise Winter, Filippeyevna: Kathleen
Wilkinson, Peasant: Adam Temple-Smith, Lensky: Oleksiy Palchykov, Captain:
Martin Häßler, Monsieur Triquet: Mark Wide, Zaretsky: Andrew Tipple,
Guillot: Adam Torrance, Prince Gremin: Brindley Sherratt

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 3 June 2016

image_description=Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky
product_title=Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky