Kasper Holten was just a teenager when he first saw Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and “fell in love with it completely”. The opera was thus a fitting choice for his first director’s venture as Artistic Director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
His co-production (between the Royal Opera House, Opera Australia and Fondazione Teatro Regio) comes to the Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne in 2014.
I have loved Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for many years. I saw it when I was a young teenager at The Royal Danish Opera and fell in love with it completely. It echoed a lot of the things I was struggling with myself at the time, although of course in many ways I understood the young Tatyana writing her letter better than the grown up and more cynical characters at the end of the opera.
It inspired me to read Pushkin’s novel, and I became even more intoxicated with the characters of Eugene Onegin and, not least, Tatyana. But there was also something more general about the whole style of the Russian novel and opera that I couldn’t resist. I ended up studying Russian for three years in high school, just so that I could read the Pushkin in the original language! And I did.
I have always dreamt about staging this opera, and yet somehow I shied away from every opportunity. However, when we had to choose the title for my first production at The Royal Opera, the moment felt right.
Eugene Onegin is a fascinating opera. I often meet people who say that they deeply love it, or even that it is one of their favourite operas. It is often performed all over the world – and yet it has never really made it to the core operatic canon, up there with the Carmens and Toscas of this world.
Maybe that is because there is something at the heart of the piece that resists the extremes of the operatic genre. The libretto is beautiful and delicate, but most of it taken straight from Pushkin’s novel. It retains the complexity of his verse rather than simplifying it in the way an opera libretto is normally supposed to do.
Tchaikovsky himself did not really want his work to be an opera. He was afraid all the conventions would drown out the delicate soul of the piece, and so would not allow the Bolshoi Opera to stage it. Instead he gave it to the Moscow Conservatory, where he felt it would have a more truthful, simple staging, avoiding the easy attractions of glamour and opulence.
For a piece which is essentially about the big emotions of youth, it is surprisingly full of melancholy. Just listen to the very first bars: It does not open with big, sweeping gestures of an emotional outpouring, but with a fragile, melancholic drooping line.
And unlike many operas it is not about Gods, fairies or faraway mysteries. It is about real people, experiencing real things that we all go through and identify immediately with: dreaming, falling in love, putting oneself out there, becoming vulnerable, facing rejection, growing up and looking back, sometimes with deep regret*
*(ok, most of us luckily do not kill friends in duels, but apart from that…)
While Eugene Onegin is certainly full of grand emotion in many moments, and while the piece offers in my view some of the most seductive music that has ever been written, it doesn’t try to be sexy. Eugene Onegin is no one-night stand. It is a long term love affair that grows on you.
Watch the trailer for the Royal Opera House production of Eugene Onegin:
Kasper Holten’s Eugene Onegin opens at the Sydney Opera House in February and Arts Centre Melbourne in April. For more info and tickets, click here.