“Every day a bloodstained shade
had come to him in field and glade” (Chapter 8 (XIII))
Pushkin's couplet describing how Lensky's ghost haunts Onegin in the years following their duel is the inspiration for the only marginally controversial moments in Michael Boyd's otherwise conservative Eugene Onegin, opening Garsington's new season. Faced with a production where the single interval occurs directly before the duel scene, Boyd has the conundrum of what to do with Lensky's body. During the Polonaise, he stages Onegin's wilderness years, tormented by the blood-drizzled poet on carriage rides, even taunted by him (in drag) at the St Petersburg ball. It's an effective decision, even if the idea outstays its welcome.
Tom Piper's stylish sets are simple yet highly evocative. Five movable panels suggest the birch-timbered dacha of the Larinas, drawing out to suggest open spaces, closing in to create claustrophobic interiors. The backs of these panels are used for the duel scene, which then neatly spin round as huge mirrors to evoke glittering St Petersburg. Minimal props aid the fluidity of these scene changes (although it's a relief to see a Letter Scene which actually features a bed), yet there's no stinting on the lavish costumes, which place us squarely in Pushkin's 1820s Russia. Filippyevna peels potatoes and the peasants bear scythes and pitchforks, creating the simplicity of country life, while in St Petersburg, the guests flutter their fans menacingly, eager to devour the latest gossip.
Williams' Onegin was a vocal mismatch for Romaniw's Tatyana. An accomplished Lieder singer, Williams' high baritone is on the light side for this role, more usually tackled by baritones with more heft who sing plenty of Verdi. His interpretation of Onegin was far more sympathetic than usual. The social awkwardness of the scene where he is introduced to the Larinas was adroitly caught and he administered the very gentlest of rejections, tenderly sung. He almost touches Tatyana's hand but worries it may be misinterpreted. Onegin's uncomfortableness in the following scene is palpable. Lensky has to drag him back to Tatyana's name-day party, where he can barely disguise his contempt for Triquet's antics. Even the wine there tastes provincial. But shouldn't Onegin be more aloof? More of a cold bastard who realises his true feelings far too late?
Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov was a terrific Lensky, impassioned and ardent, without the reedy tone some tenors exhibit in this repertoire. His great aria “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” was beautifully contained, with no playing to the gallery and he coped with his spectral duties admirably. Like Williams' Onegin, Jurgita Adamonytė's Olga was a bit of a mismatch for Romaniw's Tatyana. A high mezzo, Adamonytė lacks plushness in her lower register, though she caught the younger sister's flighty nature well.
Prince Gremin is a bit of a steal. Appearing in Act III, he gets to sing one of the most gorgeous arias in all Russian opera and that's his work done. Brindley Sherratt was the perfect cat burglar, his rich bass enveloping the audience in a warm bath of tone – sheer class. Kathleen Wilkinson's fruity mezzo made for a perfectly doughty Filippyevna, in far better vocal shape than Louise Winter's shaky Madame Larina.
The Garsington Chorus sang lustily and it was a fine idea to have six dancers to add panache to the many dance scenes so often ignored by directors in this opera. Douglas Boyd led a spirited account of Tchaikovsky's tremendous score. Perhaps the cock crowing post-Letter Scene was a little sleepy, but there were punchy accounts of the Waltz and Polonaise and a lyrical solo bassoon in Lensky's aria.
Onegin will be screened - free - in several rural coastal areas including Skegness, Ramsgate, Burnham-on-sea, Grimbsy. One of the most enjoyable new productions of Onegin in recent years and – in Romaniw's Tatyana especially – a performance that shall touch my heart for a long time.
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