Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s opera based on a novel in verse by the eminent Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, is essentially about reflections on growing up, the impetuousness of youth, falling in love and unfulfilled hope. For its premiere in 1879, Tchaikovsky insisted on employing students of the Moscow Conservatory, believing they would portray the story’s youthful characters more truthfully than the seasoned performers of the Bolshoi Theatre. He sought to present a tangible intimacy with the audience, an intent which any thoughtful modern production must strive to fulfill.
This Eugene Onegin is a dreamily sympathetic and tenderly artistic interpretation by Danish Director, Kasper Holten. Like reversing the sands of an hourglass, Holten opens with a scene that chronologically takes place towards the opera’s end. Here, a poised and mature but seemingly troubled woman, Tatyana, positions the audience for a return to the events that altered the hopes of her youth.
Pertinently, this production blends, overlays and flows the scenes in a unified artistic mesh. Holten daringly weaves two dancers, portraying the young Tatyana and Onegin, through the production to retell the story. Despite not always being immediately clear, the overall effect is visually compelling and adds to the poignancy of the drama, as do symbols of past episodes that gradually litter the stage.
Musically, Tchaikovsky’s score exhibits a restless tension and melancholy throughout. Orchestra Victoria, steered by French Conductor, Guillaume Tourniaire, supported the performance aptly on opening night, though a hint of heavy brass tainted some moments of orchestral delicacy.
As Onegin, Brazilian baritone, Paulo Szot’s stage energy and broad amplification illuminated just how comfortable he is in opera as in musical theatre, while young Australian soprano, Nicole Car, exhibited graceful assuredness and vocal purity as Tatyana. Tenor, James Egglestone, as Lensky, poet and friend of Onegin, developed to reveal a voice of pleasant warmth and as Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s husband, Daniel Sumegi’s bass was appealingly refined and robust.
Set Designer, Mia Stengaards’s neoclassical facade with three tall, deeply recessed openings traverses the stage in imposing architectural elevation, supporting the flow from scene to scene and propelling the drama to the foreground, if occasionally constraining the attractively quirky, stylised choreography of the fine chorus. Lighting grips every musical mood faithfully and period costumes of simple, solid colours give each principal clarity on stage, adding to the intimacy of the drama.
This Eugene Onegin indeed whets the appetite for seeing other notable Russian operatic works for Melbourne stages…hopefully this decade!
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Eugene Onegin is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until May 3rd. For tickets and more information, click here.