Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
English Touring Opera
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
That Eugene Onegin got written is, in itself, something of a miracle given that it was begun at a time when Tchaikovsky's marriage, just seven weeks old, was beginning to disintegrate. The composer had received an ardent letter from a female admirer, an incident apparently alluded to in a scene in the opera which an older successful man like himself receives, out of the blue, a similarly passionate note from a younger woman.
The libretto by the composer and Shilovsky consists of a series of incidents filleted from an epic poem by Pushkin, a work which would have been well-known to contemporary Russian audiences well able to 'flesh out' the rather more spare musical adaptation. Given Onegin's strong characterisation, emotional sweep and plenitude of memorable tunes, it is odd that it is the only one of Tchaikovsky's nine surviving operas which gets revived with any real regularity in this country.
Given the circumstances in which the opera was developed, the spirit of fatalism which underpins the work is scarcely surprising. Tatiana, the younger woman and ingénue, and the charismatic and sophisticated stranger, Onegin, will never find accord and mutual happiness. And, in an early telling scene, a peasant woman sings, "Habit is sent from above/In place of happiness", a refrain which is then taken up by a chorus of her peers.
A giant mirror, placed diagonally, bisects the stage, suggesting perhaps the introspection and self-fixation of the two protagonists and also of the well-to-do whom we encounter, dressed to the nines, at a ballroom dance. And it is concern with appearances, honour, which leads Lensky to fatally challenge Onegin to a duel after he dances too often with Lensky's fiancé at the dance.
It's a device that arguably quickly outlasts its use since it considerably restricts the flow of action on the stage. It does, however, help swell the ballroom scene in which the small company might otherwise seem a little thin on the ground. Overall though, Joanna Parker's set is handsome enough given the restrictions imposed by touring. The costume designs, also by Parker, are straightforward period and mercifully free from a directorial concept.
Despite gladdening the eye, the production, directed by James Conway, at first feels somewhat under-powered. Tatiana, whom, we're told, looks pale and troubled, looks anything but. Things step up several gears, however, in a subsequent scene shortly afterwards in which she sings of her love for Onegin and composes a love letter to the man whom she has met for the first time just a matter of hours earlier during a visit to the estate by Lensky and his friend.
There is fine singing from the four principals: tenor Michael Bracegirdle as Lensky; mezzo-soprano Marie Elliot; baritone Roland Wood as Onegin and especially soprano Amanada (COR) Echalaz as Tatiana who thrills as she warms to the role. Wood finds a nonchalant cruelty in the opening scenes and an impassioned regret in the later one in which he is spurned by the woman he rebuffed, despite the acknowledgement by Tatiana that she still loves him. The accompaniment by the musicians conducted by Michael Rosewell is also praiseworthy.
The onset of disenchantment is signalled by Parker's design for the set in the second act in which discarded books and ripped out pages litter the stage - Tatiana had previously been seen with a novel in her hand, a symbol of her romantic aspirations. The device also wittily suggests the onset of both a physical and a metaphorical winter in which the buds of love have withered on the bough.
The whirl and gaiety of the ball quickly give way to a ritual of a grimmer kind; the duel in which Lensky is fatally shot and Onegin leaves for an exile from which he never really returns. At the last he is left contemplating his utter ruin. It sounds relentlessly grim, but it isn't. As with Chekhov, although we are faced with certain painful truths about life, we emerge oddly exhilarated.
Reviewer: Pete Wood