Stage director Deborah Warner and, in particular, her designer team provide a tasteful presentation of Tchaikovsky's opera or, to be more precise, Tchaikovsky's lyric scenes in three acts based on Pushkin's novel.
Warner is clearly mindful of Tchaikovsky's score and she subordinates all stage business to the music with evident humility. Arguably such directorial approach should be taken for granted but it does not seem to be fashionable among stage directors.
To this pair of eyes, the sets (Tom Pye), costumes (Chloe Obolensky), lighting (Jean Kalman) and video designs (Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway) are beautiful as well as meaningful. The action is updated from Pushkin's period to the composer's late 19th century but Tom Pye's sets seem timeless. My companion for the evening, a Polish gentleman, tells me that Pye's sets for the Larin estate in Act I are strikingly similar to the Polish farm where he used to spend summers some four decades ago. I am not sure if the somewhat impoverished Larins of the Onegin story would have lived in such a grand house (and evidently with so many servants) as we see in Act II but the eye-pleasing grandeur, coupled with the frozen grey winter image of the duel scene, may be worth a little bit of poetic license. By the time we reached the glittering St. Petersburg ball room of Act III, the first night audience gave an ovation to the set. Perhaps this outburst of appreciation was prompted by Kalman's lighting which slightly lit up the auditorium thus creating the impression that we were at the ball, even if at a distance.
Warner does not try to find a new angle for presenting the Pushkin/Tchaikovsky tale; she stands back and lets the story and music unfold without undue interference. I for one welcome this approach. Rather than wondering what the director means and why she has staged the piece in a certain way, I was able sit back and enjoy the inherent drama of the story and music. Warner's presentation is not as challenging as, for instance, Dmitri Tcherniakov's staging for the Bolshoi Opera (shown in London in the summer of 2010) or Balázs Kovalik's interpretation for the Budapest Opera House (April 2011). But while I understood Tcherniakov's logic of making a big table as the central focus throughout the opera (thus almost entirely ignoring Tchaikovsky's dance music) and I also grasped the point in representing different scenes and different characters in specific colours throughout in Kovalik's staging, in both cases I was somewhat deprived of the visual presentation of Tchaikovsky's own colours in his rich score. Tchernakov and Kovalik impose their interpretation while Warner trusts her audience's intelligence and allows undisturbed entertainment.
The downside of Warner's approach is the lack of characterisation. I hasten to add, that this may not be Warner's angle but accidental to the cast she works with. Amanda Echalaz (Tatiana) does not convince as the naïve teenager although later she is powerful as Gremin's aristocratic wife. Claudia Huckle (Olga) lacks the flirtatious elements which make Lensky jealous and which therefore open the gate for the inevitable tragedy.
It is hard to portray Onegin convincingly as he is the most negative character in the plot yet the object of Tatiana's passionate desire. Audun Iversen does not present the charisma which makes Onegin's affect on Tatiana credible. Characterisation, however, is in abundance in Toby Spence's portrayal of Lensky and Adrian Thompson's delivery of Monsieur Triquet's role.
There are some minor discrepancies between words and staging: The nurse announces that Tatiana is feverish ('you are all on fire') while standing a long way from her at the other end of the large room. We do not see Tatiana writing her letter except towards the end of the letter scene when she immediately declares that 'it is finished'. On the other hand, the imitative duet between Lensky and Onegin (Duel scene, Act II) is beautifully spaced with Onegin standing behind Lensky.
The singing is of high standard throughout. Toby Spence's word painting with a variety of musical tools and Adrian Thompson's many tonal colours within his short song were outstanding. Brindley Sheratt (Prince Gremin) commands an exceptional bass voice and vocal control to cherish while Catherine Wyn-Rogers (the old nurse) and Diana Montague (Madame Larina) are almost luxury casting (which deserves huge thanks to the ENO).
I would have preferred English (rather then French) surtitles for Monsieur Triquet's French song, as I am still in the dark as to what the text is there. Kim Brandstrup's choreography was pleasing to watch even though experts tell me that the Polonaise in Act III was not a Polonaise.
ENO music director Edward Gardner is in full control of his orchestra and chorus. He is clearly committed to every note in the score and his delivery is passionate. However, it may be argued that he slightly misses the lyric aspect (as specified by Tchaikovsky) in favour of strong passion throughout.
This Eugene Onegin, a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York, is great entertainment for all ages, even if first-timers to opera. Don't miss it.
By Agnes Kory
Photos © Neil Libbert for ENO