The weather is always a bit of a gamble when it comes to British summer opera, and the day of Opera Holland Park’s season opening offered nothing short of lightning and hail. The weather dutifully calmed down in time for the opening of Tchaikovsky’s perennial Eugene Onegin, though the audience swapped out sun hats and champagne for blankets and tea. But there was little to warm the heart onstage either, despite some excellent singing.

Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin)
© Lidia Crisafulli

Much of the blame falls with Julia Burbach’s hyperkinetic staging, which starts off promisingly. Two plywood structures dominate the set, revolving to suggest the façade of a country house or a St Petersburg ballroom as needed with atmospherically lit reeds ever present in the distance. But the structures never stop moving, as they shift, spin, and careen across the stage in the middle of scenes for no apparent reason than to make the cast navigate an Escher-like maze of doorways. The reeds, too, reinforce their presence with their constantly shifting colours, matched by the lurid colours of the costumes. Tatyana’s party resembles something out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen badminton players in Onegin before; based on last night’s performance I’m not sure I need to see them again. Equally distracting was the lighting, with Tatyana’s bedroom lit in a blinding white that robbed the scene of its nocturnal poetry. The singers are left with not much to do other than to stand at the front of the stage and avoid the goings-on behind them, and there is precious little insight into the complex web of relationships that drive the plot.

Thomas Atkins (Lensky) and Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin)
© Lidia Crisafulli

Thank goodness, then, for some knockout vocal performances. Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson has made a specialty of the title role, and it’s easy to understand why. His is a refined Onegin, sympathetic and arrogant in equal measure, and sang his two arias with gorgeous long-lined legato. It helps, too, that he looks every bit the part of the worldly aristocrat – it’s easy to see why Tatyana would be smitten at first sight. Matching his intensity was Thomas Atkins as Lensky, who delivered the most satisfying drama and singing of the evening. It’s a lovely sound, pure and youthful in the opening scenes and building to a thrilling muscularity in his quarrel with Onegin. His big aria melted all hearts, drawing in the audience by reducing his voice to the finest thread. 

Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin) and Anush Hovhannisyan (Tatyana)
© Ali Wright

Everything Anush Hovhannisyan does is an event, and it’s easy to see why. She combines a charismatic presence with an almost indecently refulgent tone. It’s a bit much for the bookish heroine of the first scene, where she overplays Tatyana’s naïve innocence to the point of coyness. Her Letter Scene was alluringly sung, but vacillated wildly between a verismo-like intensity and a half-whisper that didn’t project effectively. It was only in the final scene that she let the voice fly, and it was absolutely electrifying, flinging out steely high notes that flooded the space with sound. Hovhannisyan will surely grow into the role throughout this run, but it’s clear that she’s meant for bigger things. High time for Opera Holland Park to revive their Queen of Spades?

The rest of the cast is strong – Emma Stannard deftly captured Olga’s flightiness, though her lithe mezzo is marginally too high for the role. Matthew Stiff sounded suitably resonant in Gremin’s big aria and Kathleen Wilkinson was mercifully understated as Filipyevna. It was wonderful to see Amanda Roocroft – herself once a glorious Tatyana – as Larina, commanding the stage in voice and presence and bringing an elegant melancholy to the part as she relived every moment of her daughter’s tragedy. Lada Valešová conducted the City of London Sinfonia in a carefully shaped performance, drawing wonderful colours and surprising heft from the reduced orchestra. Her deliberate tempi, though, failed to provide the momentum required for Tchaikovsky’s dance rhythms to jump off the page. Not a production for the ages, then, but if you close your eyes you can let Tchaikovsky’s glorious score and London’s evening breezes transport you away.

***11