Books have a lot to answer for, especially romantic novels within reach of impressionable adolescent minds. As a thematic device, books figure large in Opera Australia’s latest production of Eugene Onegin, littering the floor for pretty much the duration of the opera. It culminates in one of Tatyana’s most dramatic gestures: ripping out pages from the novel that had so captivated her, tearing them up and scattering them.
Books are not alone in the debris scattered towards the front of the stage. After the duel scene in the third last Scene, Lensky’s body remains as an inescapable reminder of Onegin’s guilt, in the vein of Banquo’s ghost. This could be viewed as being an awkwardly literal and unnecessary distraction, especially given the restricted space in which virtually the whole opera is played out, however, both the confined environment and the accumulated clutter from the past do give resonance to some interesting ideas. The one piece of clutter that does call for some modification is the dead branch that appears for the duel scene. Or perhaps Lensky almost overbalancing on this makeshift seat is intentional. If so, it does distract from the drama and some beautiful singing.
The poignant duet between Lensky (James Egglestone) and Onegin (Paulo Szot) was a vocal highlight and the production and emphasised the warmer, more appealing aspects of Onegin’s character. The hushed opening of Lensky’s aria was quite spell-binding, an indication of Egglestone’s sympathy with this poet, who is prepared to die rather than forfeit his idealistic notion of honour. Egglestone’s portrayal was both dramatically and vocally strong throughout the opera.
In the realms of vocal and dramatic strength Nicole Car’s Tatyana was nothing short of a triumph. She fully deserved the tribute given to her by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, who fell to his knees before her when she welcomed him onto the stage for his curtain call. She seems to be at a point in her career where physical attributes and vocal maturity are in perfect balance. Youth, beauty, natural acting flair and a fresh but sumptuous voice combine to make her an ideal Tatyana. Car is given the extra task in this production of a whole of series quick transformations between an older Tatyana remembering her younger self with yearning affection and actually being that young, infatuated self, full of passion for the Romantic ideal.
While the relationship between these selves did not always appear to be consistently developed by director Kasper Holten, the interchange between Car and her alter ego, dancer Emily Ranford, was touching and gave physical expression to her inner tumult.
A similarly dual personification of Onegin became more important in the final three scenes as the focus shifts to his relationship with Lensky and Tatyana. Holten’s direction provides a more disreputable version of Onegin. He gives Olga his hip flask to drink from at Tatyana’s name day party, he is less than sober for the duel (as is his second) and he looks decidedly scruffy when he turns up at the St Petersburg ball. In fact, when Daniel Sumegi made his appearance as the magnificently leonine, immaculately groomed Prince Gremin, you wondered why Tatyana would bother with Onegin. Sumegi’s singing of possibly opera’s most familiar bass aria in all its basso profundo glory should have been another inducement to resist the embraces of such a disreputable character.
Nostalgia and the power of words (this time in the form of Onegin’s pleading letter to Tatyana) win the day, at least up to a point. Some beautifully ardent singing by a very much in voice Paulo Szot as Onegin did, however, make her attraction to him more understandable.
The other character given an unusual interpretation was Olga, Tatyana’s flighty sister. Promised to each other as children, Olga was depicted as being frankly bored with Lensky and his poetic declarations and made no bones about it. A spirited actress with a warm attractive mezzo soprano, Sian Pendry managed to give an essentially unlikeable character some appeal.
Jacqueline Dark also gave an animated and strongly projected performance as the old nurse Filippyevna and Dominica Matthews was a spritely, compulsive tea-drinking Madame Larina. More minor roles were more than capably filled, notably Kanen Breen as an outrageously entertaining Monsieur Triquet.
Whether this interpretation of Pushkin’s extended poem as realized by Tchaikovsky is to everybody’s taste, it is undoubtedly worth seeing – even apart from some truly outstanding singing. It is a production that stimulates reassessment of the story itself and explores details of motivation and reaction to an uncommon degree. Even the use of the chorus calls for attention to be given to the social context of the action. Dressed in dark colours and using stylised movements they appeared almost robotic, especially in the ball scene.
Compared with the latest Met production of Onegin shown recently in our cinemas, the chorus and some dance sequences were handled in a much more creative and interesting manner. The dancers, dressed in skimpy ash grey shifts, drifted through Onegin’s arms moving from seductive greeting to swooning death like insubstantial spectres of his empty life.
Mia Stensgaard’s handsome set was at once imposing and functional. Complemented by atmospheric lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel and effective video design by Leo Warner for backdrop scene changes, it evoked a sense of time and place with an economy of means.
Whatever misgivings may be harboured with regard to the direction, ultimately, it is the singing that counts and Nicole Car, for one, ensured that this is an Onegin to remember. Both chorus and orchestra were in fine form under a conductor who clearly relished every thrillingly Romantic note of Tchaikovsky’s score.
Heather Leviston attended the opening night of Eugene Onegin on April16 at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne.
The image is of the current production and shows Nicole Car as Tatyana. It was taken by Jeff Busby.