At one time, the opera in Holland Park was a modest affair, not least from an artistic point of view. However, in the last few years standards have risen, as last year’s Luisa Miller showed. The City of London Sinfonia is now the resident orchestra, the chorus is excellent, and a mixture of recognisable names and talented young singers are employed for the lead roles.
This combination of factors made for a more than acceptable performance of Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera, Yevgeny Onegin, in a new production for the company, which I believe they are singing in Russian for the first time after an English-language version in the late ’90s.
The opera has at its centre a Mr Darcy character, Onegin, who rejects the love of Tatyana when she is a young girl, only to beg (unsuccessfully) for her love when she has become a glamorous princess in the final act. Onegin’s eternal boredom, his wasted intelligence and constant cynicism provide the ingredients for one of opera’s most rounded characters, brilliantly realised in Tchaikovsky’s score. Even more brilliant is the portrayal of Tatyana, whose emotional turmoil is conveyed in the taxing twenty-minute Letter Scene.
Stuart Stratford’s conducting was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this performance, leading the orchestra in a remarkably vivid account of both the intimate scenes and the big choral numbers. Both the big dances were given spirited renditions, despite weedy choreography (not helped by limited stage space). The waltz at the end of Act II, Scene II was especially successful, with Lensky’s tortured cry for a duel with Onegin (who has been flirting with Lensky’s girlfriend) exploding through the merriment in a moment of heart-stopping drama.
The soloists were of mixed quality, though none was distractingly bad. Tatyana was played by Camilla Roberts, and though she matured for the final scene, her acting was too bland in the early scenes. She is meant to be a young girl, a passionate reader who is disturbed at her intense feelings on meeting Onegin, and this was never conveyed. However, her singing was well controlled (although that was also bland at times), she had a secure top, and her last cry of farewell to Onegin was blood curdling.
Mark Stone’s Onegin was enjoyable but sometimes uneven. His singing was aristocratic enough, but seemed forced before he had warmed up. (It should be said that the cold and wet weather can hardly have helped any of the singers.) However, he was emotionally engaging where his Tatyana was not, and if he resorted to histrionics in the last scene, well, that seems in line with the composer’s treatment of the tale.
The most impressive singers were the second pair of lovers, particularly Peter Wedd as Lensky, Onegin’s friend who is killed in their duel. His aria was breathtakingly sung with full tone and real empathy for the character’s melancholy before his death. Olga, Tatyana’s sister and Lensky’s lover, was played by Victoria Simmonds, stunning in both looks and voice.
Smaller roles provided the most jarring singing, especially Graeme Broadbent’s sagging Prince Gremin (whom Tatyana marries); his famous aria slowed almost to a standstill, so weary was its execution. Scarcely better was Tyrone Landau’s Triquet, though his acting was suitably comic. However Sarah Pring was brilliant as Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother, one of the few full-blooded voices in the cast. And brava to Menai Davies as Tatyana’s aged nurse, a scene-stealing cameo.
Director Tom Hawkes takes a conventional but reasonably entertaining view of the work, and the designer Peter Rice has dreamed up economical but evocative sets. It’s well worth taking the opportunity to catch one of the remaining performances of this sturdy and occasionally gripping show.