The Royal Opera – Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin – Lyric scenes in three acts to a libretto by the composer and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky after Pushkin’s verse novel [sung in Russian with English surtitles]

Tatyana – Hibla Gerzmava
Olga – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Madame Larina – Diana Montague
Filipyevna – Elizabeth Sikora
Peasant singer – Elliot Goldie
Lensky – Piotr Beczala
Eugene Onegin – Gerald Finley
Monsieur Triquet – Robin Leggate
Trifon Petrovich – Jonathan Fisher
Zaretsky – Vuyani Mlinde
Guillot – Richard Campbell
Prince Gremin – Hans-Peter König

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jiří Bělohlávek

Steven Pimlott – Original director
Elaine Kidd – Revival director
Anthony McDonald – Designs
Peter Mumford – Lighting
Linda Dobell – Original choreography and movement
Sarah Fahie – Revival choreography and movement

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 10 March, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

A scene from 'Eugene Onegin'. ©Clive BardaSometimes it takes a revival of a production to bring out qualities that were either overlooked or lay dormant in the earlier performances. Such is it here in Elaine Kidd’s taut and confident revival of the late Steven Pimlott’s 2006 production of “Eugene Onegin” for The Royal Opera. At its first outing it received a mixed reception, many feeling that the opera was swamped by the dominating arty gauzes and rather garish and “Broadway musical” costume designs. Now those aspects interfere less and there is an enticing account of the orchestral score under the assured baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, who increasingly is demonstrating he is an operatic conductor to be reckoned with.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment – here there were wonderful moments of tension or foreboding or bloom and warmth in all those passages where the strings quiver to underline the emotional core of the scenes and sensibilities of the protagonists. Add to that the delicate and decorative woodwind figures that are among this score’s distinctive qualities and you have a reading that provides much to savour. Mention should be made of the harp; its contributions rarely make the impact they did here. Bělohlávek is not one to over-romanticise and that is all to the good, and he is very considerate of the singers. If he and the chorus of peasants took a little while to meet the same tempo, this was a small blip.

Gerald Finley as Eugene Onegin. ©Clive BardaThe conductor is blessed with a very well balanced cast of principals. Predictably, Gerald Finley delivers a warmly sung Onegin, and his upper register has a ring to it that makes the character’s desperate curtain-closers very exciting. His Onegin is very much the anti-hero, and perhaps he overdoes the rather pompous, priggish aspects – to the extent that one wonders why Tatyana finds him anything more than rather just good looking. Later on he captures the disillusionment of the more mature man re-surfacing in St Petersburg rather more effectively, but one needs to have some underlying sympathy for the man and his folly early on to care about what happens later.

Tatyana is another difficult role, and at this performance it was sung by the Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, making her debut in the house. (Marina Poplavskaya also takes the role.) Gerzmava has a very distinctive sound that may not appeal to all, though it has a plaintive quality that suits the Hibla Gerzmava as Tatyana. ©Clive Bardacharacter well, both as the young idealistic girl and also for the emotionally-controlled young woman of the final acts. Her ‘Letter Scene’ was extremely well sung and performed – with frenetic, impetuous movement at the start, and then a moment where she sat on the front of the stage, singing quietly and simply and keeping the audience absolutely rapt. Also strong was the way she visibly started to turn into her mature self towards the end of Onegin’s lecture to her. She perhaps lacked the poise of some interpreters, but this was an assured and developing portrayal.

There was a strong contrast between this Tatyana and her flighty sister Olga, sung by Ekaterina Semenchuk. Difficult to bring this girl’s persona to life, but Semenchuk has the requisite low notes and the ability to voice them lightly. She’s an assured actress and made Olga one of the major players, rather than just Tatyana’s sister.

Piotr Beczala as Lensky. ©Clive Barda Lensky was the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, and he too gave a convincing and well-sung account. Perhaps a little more honey at the start of the quartet in the scene in the garden would have lifted it to greater heights, but he managed a good sense of introspection in his aria before the duel. He was best in the scene at the Larina’s ball where his strong voice brought Lensky’s hot-headedness to life.

Hans-Peter König made another welcome appearance at The Royal Opera as Prince Gremin, sung with finesse in his rounded, rich bass. Putting the St Petersburg ball-scene outside by the banks of a frozen River Neva, complete with ice-skaters, seems to militate against the music here and it seems odd that Gremin and Onegin are the only ones unaffected by the cold and not wearing winter wear!

There are also some lovely and detailed cameos from the ever-charismatic Diana Montague as a wise, wistful and humorous Madame Larina, from Elizabeth Sikora as Tatyana’s slightly dotty nurse, and also from Robin Leggate’s Monsieur Triquet – if you can overcome that particular costume and wig and retain dignity then you are a true professional!

It is the care for the important minor details, the balance of the cast, and the excellence of the conducting and playing, that makes this a strong revival. If a few tics of the production still irritate (do the ghosts of characters from the duel need to reappear in the ice-rink scene?), it looks as if it may be further encompassing of new casts and different interpretations.

  • This was the second performance of the current revival (the first was on 8 March)
  • Further performances (with some cast changes) on March 14, 18, 20 & 26 March and April 1, 4 & 7, all at 7.30 p.m. (Christopher Willis conducts on April 1 & 7)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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