London ball

Eugene Onegin – Opera Holland Park, London

Composer: Tchaikovsky

Director: Julia Burbach

Conductor: Lada Valešova

Holland Opera Park Eugene Onegin is an engaging, beautifully staged production featuring the City of London Sinfonia in sparkling form under the direction of Lada Valešová. The choral singing is excellent and the soloists, especially Anush Hovhannisyan as Tatyana, Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Thomas Atkins as Lensky are brilliant. Dale Johnson and Atkins look splendid in regency costume, the overall design of takis evoking something from the world of Jane Austen.

But Pushkin’s verse novel, on which Eugene Onegin is based, is a much darker world than Austen’s. Tatyana may seem Sense and sensitivity‘s Marianne, her love of literature populates her inner world, but the lesson she is forced to learn is much harder. Onegin, the cynical man she falls in love with, coldly rejects her. In a reckless duel, he kills his best friend Lensky, his sister Olga’s fiancé. Five years pass. The next time we see her, Tatyana will turn into a beautiful woman, married to Prince Gremin and toast of St. Petersburg society. Onegin sees her only to fall hopelessly in love with her. He begs her to run away with him. Tatyana admits to still loving him, but sternly orders him to leave. Her mother Larina, an extremely sympathetic Amanda Roocroft, is a role model for a woman who chose an orderly life over a heady, unreliable passion.

In the production of Opera Holland Park, there is no doubt that Tatyana made the right choice. Onegin’s original appeal was his apparent elevation and dignity in the remote countryside in which Tatyana lives. Here, director Julia Burbach’s decision to show Onegin as a shadowy figure haunting nearly every scene makes him seem almost sinister. An uncomfortable tension sets in during Prince Gremin’s solo, for example. While a deeply moving Matthew Stiff extols the transformative joys of love found when all hope is gone, we are shown in the background Onegin wildly pleading for his love for Tatiana. The concern that Gremin will turn around and see them overshadows the pathos of Gremin’s beautiful solo.

This constant appearance of Onegin in scenes where he has no role becomes more and more disturbing. Tatiana’s scene of youthful rapture in which she writes a love letter to Onegin is distorted by the presence of Onegin himself, supposedly a figure of her imagination. We are later shown crawling while watching Lensky before the duel (and indeed Lensky himself is posthumously made to reappear in St. Petersburg). Does Burbach want us to see him as a stalker? Whether deliberate or not, this discomfort unbalances the intensity of Tatiana’s enduring love for Onegin and undermines her expressed regret for her past blindness.

Anush Hovhannisyan herself is stunning in the final scenes as the prince’s bewitching wife, her voice rich and beautiful. Hovhannisyan’s stature is matched by her elegant ball gown and makes up for the wicked costume she was forced to wear as a youngster herself.

Until June 25, 2022