Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Concealed Passion

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Concealed Passion

Article excerpt

Eugene Onegin

Coliseum, in rep until 3 December

ENO's new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin has created something of a stir by departing from the house almost-tradition of postmodernist, stunningly intrusive and invariably grotesquely irrelevant presentations that began in earnest sometime last year. The set designs for this opera, by Tom Pye, and the costumes, by Chloe Obolensky, update it to the late 19th century, but that is just a nervous tic. More surprisingly, Deborah Warner's direction of the characters and actors is so unobtrusive that one wonders if she told anyone to do anything in particular. The most sensational departure from what we normally see is that Lensky wears glasses (not sunglasses) for the duel, gently stressing his bookish otherworldliness; and one other touch, to be mentioned later.

In many other operas, Warner's present policy would be welcome, but one of the troubles with Onegin is that some of the characters, especially the eponymous antihero, are so sketchily portrayed both in their music and their words that to create a plausible and involving drama they need some direction. All the more so if the performer of the role of Onegin is as bland an actor as the young Norwegian Audun Iversen. It's usual to say that Onegin is a cold cad, who is only awoken to feeling when he returns from his years of wandering and finds, to his chagrin, that Tatyana has made a satisfactory life for herself, or seems to have. Yet his rejection of her after she has written her impassioned letter to him is the most sensible thing anyone does in the whole opera, and I have yet to see a production of this highly popular work that makes that c lear, and g ives Oneg in sympathet ic treatment.

Producers, like audiences, are fixated on the two characters with an excess of sensibility, Tatyana and Lensky. So, one has to admit, was Tchaikovsky, even while he was demonstrating that the results of such an excess are either death or suppression of feeling in the service of conventional living. He is the least likely - well, no, Wagner, Rilke, D.H. Lawrence easily beat him to it - artist to celebrate ordinary living over sustained intensity, yet that was the task he set himself in Onegin. So the odd and equivocal unsatisfactoriness of a work that is full of charm and often poignancy is inevitable.

What can easily strike one as padding, even of a very classy kind, is actually Tchaikovsky's attempt to tip the scales in favour of compromise - a point which Madame Larina, Tatyana's mother, here superbly played by Diana Montague, is at pains to get across in the comfortable rocking of the opening scene. …

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