Christoph Loy’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in Oslo attempts to consolidate the solitary natures of the two main characters, with somewhat mixed results. Even though the production doesn’t quite manage what it sets out to, it is helped along by some absolutely stunning singing.

Svetlana Aksenova (Tatyana) and Audun Iversen (Onegin)
© Erik Berg

Loy had divided the production into two contrasting halves, entitled ‘Solitude’ and ‘Loneliness’, in an attempt to make the opera something of a meditation on the state of being alone. Overall, he succeeded. The first half told the story largely from Tatyana’s point of view – a bookish recluse, attempting to remove herself from the people and situations around her, all the while wearing quite excellent cardigans – emphasising her chosen solitude. It also took a rather more realistic approach, telling the story as clearly divided episodes. By contrast, the second half – starting with the duel between Lensky and Onegin – told the story as a continuous, dream-like sequence. It constantly switched between depictions of the reality of the opera and events as they were processed by Onegin, emphasising his involuntary loneliness and destructive influence on his own life and the people around him.

A feeling of claustrophobia pervaded the entire production. Raymond Orfeo Voigt’s sets were unusually shallow, so as to make most scenes featuring more than four people seem almost unbearably crowded. The effect was that there was a feeling of being unable to escape, especially in the large choral scenes. This was put to especially good use in the scene of Tatyana’s name day party, where increasingly drunk and debauched party guests filled the stage, leaving a horrified Tatyana nowhere to go. The setting of the first half of the production was a room in the Larin’s country house, acting as a scullery, a bedroom or a dining room as needed, whereas the second half of the opera – starting with the duel between Lensky and Onegin – was set in an even smaller white box.

Svetlana Aksenova (Tatyana)
© Erik Berg

The white box of the second half allowed for a blurring of what was real and what was not. This was shown most clearly in the duel scene: Lensky and Onegin dropped their weapons and went to embrace each other, and in their embrace, it looked as if Lensky put Onegin’s gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. As the jolly Polonaise began – a chilling contrast if there ever were one – the blood-stained Lensky got up to leave. This more abstracted setting of the second half of the opera, wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it ended up feeling less finished than the first. The fact that the second half was less than half the length of the first part didn’t help; there wasn’t enough opera left to establish this new narrative mode.

Bogdan Volkov (Lensky), Svetlana Aksenova (Tatyana) and Audun Iversen (Onegin)
© Erik Berg

While the production didn’t quite hit the mark, the musical side of things was uniformly excellent. Audun Iversen was absolutely tremendous in the role of Onegin, his dark baritone giving a slightly dangerous edge to a character who at first might seem like an incurable flirt. His singing took on more of a serious – if not helpless – tone as events began to spiral out of control, and he seemed most at home in the anguished second half, with Onegin’s life unravelling in front of him. Svetlana Aksenova was a wonderful Tatyana, her warm middle register managing to convey the character’s progression from awkward teenager to Russian princess. Her top did have a tendency of sounding a little pinched, however. She powered through a slightly too busy Letter Scene, and although I could have done with just a touch more youthful rapture towards the end, it was really quite beautiful. By the end of the opera, both she and Iversen were firing on both cylinders, and their final duet was some of the best singing of the whole evening.

The supporting cast was equally excellent. Tone Kummervold played Olga as a surprisingly sexual teenager, only aware of the consequences of her actions once she had gone too far. As Lensky, Bogdan Volkov was the perfect mix of charming and pathetic, and although his sudden switch to jilted lover was perhaps slightly too sudden, he sang ‘Kuda, kuda’ with heart-breaking sincerity. Randi Stene provided some needed comic relief in her debut as Larina, portraying a character barely managing to keep up a façade of middle-class respectability. Her scenes with Hanna Schwarz’ constantly slightly appalled-looking Filippyevna were particularly delightful.

Svetlana Aksenova (Tatyana), Robert Pomakov (Gremin) and Audun Iversev (Onegin)
© Erik Berg

The chorus got off to a slightly rocky start, the sopranos and altos overpowered by slightly too enthusiastic tenors in the first act song and chorus. Some curious costuming and directorial choices in that particular number did not help, either. Luckily things improved from there, and they were on fine form – the altos in particular – in the party scene later on. Despite a slightly heavy start, conductor Lothar Koenigs brought out some absolutely glorious sonorities from the orchestra, especially in the many dances, as well as a beautifully formed Letter Scene.

Christoph Loy’s new Onegin is not entirely without its flaws, but compelling storytelling and some utterly sensational singing from the main characters make this a production decidedly worth seeing.