The only summer opera venue in the heart of London dazzles with Tchaikovsky.
While we might automatically associate Opera Holland Park with bringing to public attention works by Italian composers whose own considerable talents were eclipsed by those of Puccini, some of its other strengths can all too easily be overlooked. One of these is its affinity with Tchaikovsky, but if its productions of The Queen of Spades in 2016 and Iolanta in 2019 have already established its reputation for tackling the composer’s operas, Julia Burbach’s new staging of Eugene Onegin should surely seal it.
Last year COVID-19 prompted set designer takis to redesign the entire stage and auditorium that lies beneath OHP’s canopied roof. Capacity was reduced from 1,000 to 400, with the auditorium chairs being gathered from a variety of sources including Holland Park’s own 2017 production of La rondine. These were arranged on a far shallower tier than the raked seating of previous years occupied, with the result being that the area felt more spacious on the one hand, yet more intimate on the other. This year the venue has increased its capacity to 750 while both retaining, and building on, its new format by improving sight lines and introducing additional levels.
Takis is also the designer for this Eugene Onegin and his sets comprise a series of high white walls that can be pushed into a variety of formations to create the different spaces that the drama requires. They feel elegant and thus ensure that the production has great aesthetic appeal, but are flexible enough to convey both Madame Larina’s house and the grander dwelling in St Petersburg where the second ball occurs. This is in the spite of the fact that the drama is set in its original time and place, meaning the sets are predominantly portraying rather than simply suggesting each location. Reeds lie around the edges of the stage, reminding us of the country estate that surrounds the Larin house, but the real cleverness rests in the way in which the walls can create such enclosed or open spaces depending on how they are arranged, and whether the high doors in them are open or shut.
The potential this offers to make certain points or show elements in a new light is exploited to the full throughout the evening. For example, not long after Lenksy and Onegin first arrive, Olga and Lensky run into another room for a private moment together. They can only do this, however, because the arches that are formed when the doors are opened are large enough to ensure that the pair can run under one to give the impression of going into another room, yet still remain in the overall area that will enable them to deliver the lines they have to sing just moments later. After the St Petersburg ball the two halves of the set are separated with one’s doors being opened and the other’s closed. This is so they can be pushed around to meet again and create the space for the last scene, but in the moment when they are moved apart and look so very different it feels as if they are signifying the two ways in which this final encounter could go.
The cast is excellent with the strong vocal performances being complemented by some astutely observed interactions that are themselves aided by the staging. Towards the start of the Larin ball Tatyana dances with Onegin (which is in the original directions) before walking away. Clearly, it is too much for her to have to interact with him like this in public after he has rejected her, but her withdrawal seems just as responsible as the gossip he hears for him venting his frustration by dancing with Olga.
“The cast is excellent with the strong vocal performances being complemented by some astutely observed interactions…”
As with last year, the City of London Sinfonia, superbly conducted by Lada Valešová, is situated in a dip surrounded by the main stage behind and a gangway that runs around its sides and front. This enables some parts of the action to be played out on an area directly before us. The majority of the altercation between Lensky and Onegin at the Larin ball occurs here, which means that, with the characters being so close to us, we really feel their pain and torment. However, the staging also emphasises how the guests generally take Lensky’s side, and see Onegin as being out of order, by having Lensky return to them on the main stage while his adversary remains at the front as an isolated figure. At the end of the scene the guests all retreat through the doors in the walls before shutting them on Onegin. He manages to open one to ‘escape’ through, but the duel scene that follows after the interval begins with him coming out of the door again as if he is an outcast even before he has killed Lensky.
The duel itself is effectively rendered with the subtexts being played out visually both in the moment of the shooting and the surrounding scene. For example, we see Onegin during Lensky’s ‘Kuda, kuda vï udalilis’ but in such a way that he does not distract from Thomas Atkins’ wonderful performance, in which the quality of his tenor and the control he exerts over the aria make it profoundly moving without him ever having to indulge in histrionics.
It is very easy to see the clash at the Larin ball as being solely between Onegin and Lensky, and yet surely Olga’s actions are hurtful to Tatyana as well. Here, Monsieur Triquet’s verses (Joseph Buckmaster on good form) are presented in such a way that we can home in on Tatyana’s own thoughts and reactions to her sibling’s behaviour. This in turn leads us to speculate on how the death of Lensky affects the sisters’ own relationship for, while Tatyana was far from responsible for it, it is difficult to see how the whole episode could not leave a mark in one way or another. Certainly, retaining Lensky as a presence at the St Petersburg ball helps to heighten how guilty Onegin feels, while the scene as a whole, which involves some impressive dancing from the Opera Holland Park Chorus choreographed by Jo Meredith, highlights how society has judged and turned his back on him.
Anush Hovhannisyan is captivating as Tatyana with the inherent security in her soprano being the basis from which she can launch the most glistening or emotional of sounds. Her ‘Letter Aria’ is particularly stirring and the presence of Onegin during it works as she can address him directly with words such as ‘I write to you’. At the same time, though she remains nervous at what his reaction might be, the fact that the Onegin who stands before her is a figment of her imagination does make it easier for her to place a positive slant on it, and dream of how everything could be with him. Samuel Dale Johnson is outstanding in the title role as his powerful and precise baritone combines with just the right persona to make him really feel like both a distinguished and disturbed character. In the supporting roles, Emma Stannard as Olga, Matthew Stiff as Prince Gremin, Amanda Roocroft as Madame Larina and Kathleen Wilkinson as Filippyevna all play their parts to the full.
• The performances on 13 and 23 June are Young Artists Performances featuring a different cast and creative team including conductor Hannah von Wiehler. The matinee on 19 June is an Audio-described and Relaxed Performance, while on 15 and 21 June there are also Schools Matinees.
• Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season continues until 28 August. For full details of all events and tickets visit its website.