Welsh National Opera at Sadler’s Wells – Eugene Onegin (9 March)

Eugene Onegin

Tatyana – Amanda Roocroft
Olga – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Mme Larina – Joanne Thomas
Filipyevna – Linda Ormiston
Peasant leader – Philip Lloyd-Evans
Lensky – Marius Brenciu
Onegin – Vladimir Moroz
Captain – David Soar
Monsieur Triquet – Robert Tear
Zaretsky – David Soar
Guillot – Philip Lloyd Holtam
Prince Gremin – Brindley Sherratt

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Tugan Sokhiev

Director – James Macdonald
Designer – Tobias Hoheisel
Lighting – Andreas Grüter
Choreography – Stuart Hopps

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 9 March, 2004
Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London

For the start of one of its relatively rare one-week London showcases Welsh National Opera presented its new production of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel, under the baton of its new young Russian Music Director. Expectations were therefore high.

It would be nice, of course, to report that the evening was a triumph and that it showed the company at its best and most innovative – but the evening was rather a mixed bag and in some ways a rather frustrating experience.

A large part of WNO’s business is touring and therefore designs have to be accommodated in theatres of various sizes, easily transported, mounted and dismounted. Simplicity is therefore the watchword and so it was here. Eugene Onegin is an opera that combines a mixture of intimate scenes with large operatic gatherings such as Tatyana’s name-day party and the St Petersburg ball in the penultimate scene, and needs spaciousness within the design but also the quality to concentrate to a small and defined area.

As the curtain rose one felt that Tobias Hoheisel’s designs would provide the director with this possibility, with the high white walls separating the indoor scenes from the outdoor, and allowing colour glimpses of life going on outside, and indeed the earlier scenes worked reasonably well in this respect. Unfortunately, despite the mirror and other perspective tricks, the St Petersburg Ball looked a bit cramped and the final study scene, set in a huge white room with large central glass window doors was too large and spare a setting for the denouement. If it was intended to show the emptiness in Tatyana’s mature life then the director failed to capitalise on that.

But the designs also seemed rather familiar, probably because seasoned UK opera-goers are likely to have seen Hoheisel’s rather similar, if more vivid and colourful designs for Janácek’s Jenùfa and Káa Kabanová in Glyndebourne’s Lehnhoff productions. The settings were well and atmospherically lit, although sometimes the singers’ facial features were not always as well illuminated as one might have liked. This may have been intentional sometimes, but Vladimir Moroz’s Onegin seemed to spend most of his first appearance in a small cloud of darkness that obliterated his face – we should surely be able to see what Tatyana finds so appealing about him from the outset.

So what of the musical performance? Tugan Sokhiev led a generally rather slow and spacious account of the score, occasionally with some rather jolting changes of tempi and moments that felt rushed – a not totally convincing sweep but with some marvellous playing from the strings and the woodwind; and there were some insightful moments, particularly the relaxing of a rather tense sound in the strings to a full mellow and romantic sonority together with a lowering of tempo as Tatyana first blurts out to her nurse that she is in love.

The accompaniments to Olga’s more flighty carefree expression were also nicely underlined. Sometimes the tempos became too deliberate such as in the verse sections of Prince Gremin’s aria and perhaps too for Monsieur Triquet’s couplets, sung by Robert Tear in another of his delightful small cameos.

With a Russian Onegin and Olga the major role casting looked good. Olga came off best with a lovely velvety, unforced and mellow mezzo and a vivid stage persona who interacted well with everyone on stage – one of those performers who always catches your eye even when not the centre of attention. Vladimir Moroz’s Onegin was more of a puzzle – he certainly has an attractive voice for the role and is tall and good looking (when you could see his face) but his acting seemed rather studied and not very intuitive. As portrayed, there did not seem to be much in his Onegin that Tatyana might have found appealing, and unfortunately there were moments where he seemed to think he was in a showy Italian opera, building summerhouses on his high notes that were held on for an eternity – very out of place in Russian opera.

Amanda Roocroft, an intelligent singer and natural stage performer, sang Tatyana. She seemed happier, as many singers of the role do, in portraying the more-mature lady than the young girl. The Letter Scene had its moments of dramatic insight – again more towards the end as Tatyana, having sent her declaration of love to Onegin, realises what she has done, is anxious about it for a moment and then self-reassured. By the time of her appearance in the next scene she has already grown up considerably.Vocally Roocroft did not seem at her happiest or her considerable best – but that may be because Sadler’s Wells does not seem to have a particularly flattering vocal acoustic.

Lensky was sung by the Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2001 – singing one of Lensky’s arias in his prize-winning performance. His portrayal of the complete role left one wondering whether the potential the judges saw in Cardiff was likely to be met. His singing was efficient but overall the impression was a somewhat bland one and neither Lensky’s idealism in the early scenes or his desperation in the aria before the fatal duel really emerged characterfully enough in his singing. On this showing one sensed he needs more stage experience. Some of his acting was a bit mechanical but there were some good things too – I liked his moment of shock as Onegin asked why he was in love with Olga and not Tatyana. I hope he is given time to develop his career naturally.

Brindley Sherratt contributed a benign Gremin. The smaller cameo roles were reasonably assumed, notably David Soar’s Captain / Zaretsky and Joanne Thomas’s stand-in Mme Larina. The chorus sang and danced lustily or sedately as occasion demanded – although I wondered if Russian farm labourers would really have danced shirtless in their mistress’s garden?

Ultimately, the evening suffered from a less than thorough directorial hand. There were some excellent patches – Tatyana’s bed in her youth and drawing room seats in her mature world always with piles of books underneath; the way the dancing at the name-day party slowly stopped as the other guests became aware of the argument between Lensky and Onegin; and the suppressed tension at the first meeting of Tatyana and Onegin in St Petersburg. Onegin’s personality change between the early and final scenes I felt was exaggerated and his character having kept Tatyana’s first letter did not seem to accord with his earlier dismissal of it. An interesting idea – but not ideally realised.

So, an evening of occasional insights but lacking the overall sweep and conviction this great piece really needs.

WNO are touring this production and their productions of Madama Butterfly and Hänsel und Gretel to the Birmingham Hippodrome, Milton Keynes Theatre, Southampton Mayflower Theatre, Swansea Grand Theatre and Bristol Hippodrome in the forthcoming weeks.

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