In their Fidelio last September, Garsington Opera showed their ability to navigate Covid constraints to produce an outstanding artistic result. Last night, in their revival of Michael Boyd’s 2016 production of Eugene Onegin, they showed that same ability with a fully staged production, providing a wonderful evening of opera – although not without imperfections.

Sam Furness (Lensky) and the Garsington Opera Chorus
© Julian Guidera

During lockdown, the Garsington pit has been expanded to the point where it can accommodate a socially distanced orchestra of 45. The Philharmonia Orchestra – 24 strings, 19 winds, timpani and harp – gave us an outstanding rendering Tchaikovsky’s score. The music is the ultimate fusion of Romantic sweep and Classical symmetry, with strong themes continually recurring in different instrumental voices. Under the baton of Garsington’s music director Douglas Boyd, every one of those voices rang clearly and distinctly at just the right level of separation from the others, with a distinctive lilt that was always thrilling and never overblown.

The measures for enabling the chorus and dancers to rehearse in Covid-safe conditions have been just as complex a project and we have to tip our hats to chorus master Jonathon Cole-Swinard. The quality and precision of the chorus was top class and when the peasants bounded on stage to pay their respects to the Larina family, the sheer exuberance of their singing nearly blew the roof off.

Natalia Tanasii (Tatyana) and Jonathan McGovern (Onegin)
© Clive Barda

Our two female leads, Natalia Tanasii as Tatyana and Fleur Barron as Olga, were both young singers who are going places. Barron was incredibly watchable, perfectly incarnating Olga’s irrepressible nature as the life and soul of any party, and particularly impressed with the strength and quality of her low register. Tanasii has a remarkable timbre, with all the warmth and smoothness you might wish for; she also has pin-sharp intonation and the right ear for how to phrase Tchaikovsky’s flowing lines. But there are things to learn. The Letter Scene requires Tatyana to gradually work herself up to a frenzy; it’s a long scene and Tanasii started it at full throttle, leaving herself nowhere to go to maintain interest, so the scene which had started so thrillingly began to drag by the end. Tanasii’s downbeat stage presence was appropriate to the young country girl of Acts 1 and 2, but Act 3 requires a transformation into a proud society lady and she was unable to make the shifts in body language needed to make us believe in that transformation (and wasn’t helped, I fear, by her Act 3 costume).

Sam Furness, singing Lensky, may not have Tanasii’s power levels or exceptional timbre, but he absolutely understands how to construct a scene; both his winding up to fever pitch during Tatyana’s name-day ball and his aria as he awaits Onegin’s arrival for the duel were textbook examples of how to achieve progression and an escalation of emotions. Jonathan McGovern, in the title role, gets his main chance to shine in Act 3 and grabbed it with both hands. His final stand-off with Tanasii’s Tatyana was as powerful a rendering as I’ve ever seen.

Jonathan McGovern (Onegin)
© Clive Barda

Yvonne Howard and Kathleen Wilkinson gave strong acting and vocal performances as Madame Larina and Filippyevna, but the biggest name on the cast list, Matthew Rose as Prince Gremin, was a disappointment, looking and sounding out of sorts. The scale and richness of his bass voice was fully in evidence, but the legato in Gremin’s aria was missing; delivery was choppy and there was less than perfect coordination with the orchestra.

Michael Boyd’s staging is straightforward and, for the most part, works well. Costumes are 19th-century, sets are sparse with movable, largely featureless walls that can transform to hint at different settings rather than depict them literally and can close in on characters as a metaphor for their state of mind. Where the staging shines is in the attention to detail: Madame Larina’s failed attempts to persuade Olga to wear a shawl for modesty’s sake; Olga’s enthusiasm for the dancers; Lensky putting her literally on a pedestal. The scene with Monsieur Triquet worked particularly well, Colin Judson vocally excellent and personally nauseous as he delivers his toe-curlingly embarrassing song, with Onegin at the side grabbing one glass of wine after another from Filippyevna’s tray – as we know, his getting titanically drunk is what will precipitate the tragedy.

Fleur Barron (Olga) and Sam Furness (Lensky)
© Julian Guidera

The production’s one departure from the straight and narrow is to have Lensky rising from dead to haunt Onegin through his travels and return to St Petersburg. It works reasonably well, but the ball scene is underwhelming, falling between the stools of conceptual and costume drama.

Eugene Onegin is a truly great opera, and let’s celebrate the outstanding orchestral and chorus performances, some sensitive character portrayal and highly talented singing from young singers with a real future ahead. In spite of two key scenes not quite coming off, this is a production well worth seeing.