Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Eugene Onegin

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Eugene Onegin

Article excerpt

It's scene five of Kasper Holten's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Michael Fabiano's Lensky is alone with a snow-covered branch and his thoughts. Well, not quite alone. At the other side of the stage stands the man he is about to face in a duel: his friend Onegin, who's apparently arrived ahead of the appointed time and is listening to every word of Lensky's anguished soliloquy. Except he isn't: this is the Onegin of the present, looking back on a tragedy in his past. Or possibly imagining it? He can't, after all, have heard Lensky's words, for the practical reason that he wasn't there. Can he? Oh, is that applause? The aria's over.

The big idea behind Holten's production -- apparently tightened up since its 2013 debut -- is this business with doubles. A pair of dancers represent 'Young Onegin' and 'Young Tatyana'; graceful performers, well chosen for their physical resemblance to Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Onegin and Nicole Car's Tatyana. They pop up throughout the opera: Tatyana's letter scene is acted by her double while Car, as her older self, watches, gestures at and ineffectively pleads with --what, exactly? Her own memory?

True, there's a certain poignancy, an added emotional charge, in seeing a character react on stage to some of the most emotionally honest music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. There's a literary rationale too: by presenting the drama as a series of memories Holten evokes the first-person narration of Pushkin's novel, and points up the deliberately episodic nature of Tchaikovsky's seven 'lyrical scenes' (Tchaikovsky refrained from describing Onegin as an opera). In the letter scene it sort of works, if you discount the feeling that Holten is muscling in to dictate the audience's response at precisely the point where Tchaikovsky is straining with every last ounce of sincerity and expression to get into your heart on his own terms. Elsewhere, as in Lensky's aria, Holten's big idea simply confuses and distracts.

Nicola Car as Tatyana

At times the direction is just clumsy. For the exchange between Prince Gremin and Onegin, Holten empties the stage of all other attendees at Gremin's ball. Since the plot requires Tatyana to be present later, Holten simply parks her against a nearby column in the meantime. Other ideas make a single effective point, and then become background clutter. Or (literally) foreground clutter in the case of the gradual build-up of symbolic objects downstage -- a pile of books, a wheatsheaf, that branch and, for the whole of the last two scenes, Lensky's corpse. …

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