Love, loss, dancing and a duel. What more can you want from an opera? Garsington’s Eugene Onegin delivers.
Refugees from The Grange Festival’s ‘full opening’ pilot scheme, we were warmly welcomed to Garsington for this revival of the 2016 production, with a stronger cast framed within a functional staging and graced with an exceptional orchestral performance. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Douglas Boyd played Tchaikovsky’s sweeping, Romantic score as though it had been written yesterday, full of freshness and verve yet caressing the introspective moments with delicately nuanced phrasing.
There were times when the orchestra was providing a level of passion not quite in evidence on the stage. Naturally, the requirements of social distancing made for less intimacy than usual, but there was a sense of aloofness about some of the performances. This however did not affect the Larin sisters; Fleur Barron’s Olga was just this side of annoying, with her protestations about her own happiness – ‘I’m everyone’s pet…’ but her exciting, richly coloured voice compensated for the cuteness.
Natalia Tanasii was a much more passionate Tatyana than Natalya Romaniw in 2016, although she began the ‘Letter scene’ at too high an emotional temperature, thus losing some of the sense of a build-up from the need to express her feelings to being completely swept away by them. Earlier on she conveyed very well the mood so exactly described by Pushkin, ‘In solitude her heart was burning, / Crushed by adolescent gloom / Her soul was waiting – but for whom?’
In the last act she was a vision of dignity until her emotions were besieged by Jonathan McGovern’s despairing Onegin, who was perhaps a little too cool in the first act but later on showed his mettle in both the ball scene and the duel. He was a less than suave Onegin, relying on worldly charm to make his impact, and his singing throughout showed real star quality.
Sam Furness was an appealing Lensky, although he too seemed a little under par. In ‘Kuda, Kuda’ he conveyed Lensky’s foreboding and regret with poignant phrasing, and died impressively. Pushkin himself died of injuries sustained in a duel – apparently his 29th – and Tchaikovsky’s music here heightens the poet’s sense of inevitability.
Yvonne Howard and Kathleen Wilkinson were both ideal casting as Madame Larina and Filippyevna. Tchaikovsky wrote of the domestic scenes that “…the portrayal of everyday life will be interesting, and how full of poetry it all is! The scene between Tatyana and her nurse is marvellous.” And so the interchanges between the two elderly ladies were indeed full of poetry, and that in Tatyana’s bedroom was outstanding, especially when the old Nanny recalls how she had to go and live ‘among strangers’ when she married.
“The Philharmonia Orchestra under Douglas Boyd played Tchaikovsky’s sweeping, Romantic score as though it had been written yesterday…”
Colin Judson’s Triquet trod delicately along the line of slight absurdity and deep devotion which marks out this role, and his singing was exceptionally fine – what a versatile artist he is to be able to present this part in the same month as his spivvy Valzacchi. Dominick Felix’ Peasant leader, Jerome Knox’ Captain, Ossian Huskinson’s Zaretsky and Aaron Godfrey-Mayes’ Guillot all made strong impressions.
Matthew Rose’s Gremin was a little under-powered, singing his deeply moving aria with solid technique but with less individuality than one might have expected from him. The surrounding chorus at his palace ball were splendidly arrogant, although as before the dancing was somewhat muted. That also applied to the Peasants’ dancing in Act I; there was too much in the way of acrobatics – which serfs in rural Russia would most certainly not have been likely to practice – and not enough earthiness.
The Garsington Opera Chorus showed once more that they have few equals when it comes to impressive ensemble movement and singing either lusty or tender as the action requires. Perhaps one day the Festival will stage a Nabucco or even a Tannhäuser to really put them through their paces.
Michael Boyd’s austere, minimal production, with Tom Piper’s spacious designs and Malcolm Rippeth’s darkly atmospheric lighting, is short on domestic realism – poor old Nanny has to drag the table and chairs off stage – and suggests little of the contrasting worlds of country house and court, although the bleakness of the landscape around the duel scene is expressively imagined. The costumes, from the lowliest field worker to the elegant Princess Gremin, are exceptionally beautiful.
More details of this production can be found here.