Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is one of the most beautiful scores in the operatic repertoire, and I don't blame people who come to it looking forward to immersing themselves in the warm bath of the familiar story and music. For many of the audience – and, it has to be said, critics – Kasper Holten's deconstructed Onegin clearly felt as if nanny had taken teddy away and left a book on German Expressionist cinema in its place.
Holten's conceit is that Onegin and Tatyana are looking back on their missed opportunity, sometimes literally watching others act their younger selves while they sing. (If nothing else, an inventive solution to the classic problem of singers who are clearly too old for their roles...) This is particularly effective in the duel scene, as Simon Keenlyside's broken Onegin tries helplessly to come between the thoughtless dandy he once was and the best friend he is about to kill, only to see events play out as he knows they must and his younger self hand him the murder weapon. Likewise in the letter scene, Vigdis Hentze Olsen as Young Tatyana acts out the scene as we know it, with Krassimira Stoyanova watching her sadly while singing the aria.
However, most of the time Keenlyside and Stoyanova both act and sing their roles, and the effect is undeniably disconcerting. When the older, dissolute Onegin first arrives at the Larin family's estate, it's hard to believe he would turn any young girl's head (even if there were a young girl available, rather than just the fully-grown Tatyana). Likewise during the ball scene, when Onegin offers Olga a swig from his hip flask, is this the older Onegin projecting his current behaviour onto his younger self?
By the final scene, the debris of earlier events is piling up on stage – Lensky's corpse next to Tatyana's reading table, in front of the huge doors that tower over her as if to remind her of the insignificance of her feelings. She and Onegin are forced to witness their younger selves bursting in, two young lovers looking for a quiet corner where they can be alone. The final struggle for Tatyana's soul takes place in front of Gremin, a nice touch (although it makes Tatyana's openly admitting that she's only staying with him out of duty rather incongruous). In the end, having finally banished Onegin, she desperately takes up one of the romantic novels that consoled her as a girl.
In addition to the overarching concept, there are some nice directorial touches, such as setting the cotillion offstage to focus on Lensky and Tatyana's reaction to being left out of it. Holten has even gone against the usual structure of the piece, giving us just one interval in the middle of what is normally Act II. A few people did leave (though not, alas, the seven-footer fate had chosen to seat in front of me) but this may partly be explained by the surtitles failing to function up to this point, making the action pretty incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the piece. The vast majority who did stay were enthusiastic in their applause, not surprisingly given the musical quality.
Pavol Breslik approaches Lensky with the delicacy of a Lieder singer, and his Olga, Elena Maximova, has a glorious voice with true contralto depth. Keenlyside as Onegin sings with an unforced warmth and roundness, pronouncing his Russian very clearly (and, for all I know, correctly) and Stoyanova is an affecting Tatyana, finding the necessary volume without ever becoming shrill. The role of Zaretsky is little more than a cough and a spit, but it was enough to showcase the remarkable voice of Jihoon Kim – currently on the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, he will one day make as fine and full-toned a Gremin as Peter Rose does now.
In the pit, Robin Ticciati indulges in some extremes of tempi, often with the obvious disapproval of the ROH Orchestra and Chorus, the latter struggling to keep up during the peasants' chorus. When happier with the tempo (and a production that required them to do little more than stand facing front and sing) they sounded magnificent.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD