The scene in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin where the peasants, weary from gathering in the harvest, sing and dance for the woman who owns the estate (and, for that matter, owns them) is perhaps not the best example of gritty social realism in opera. Kasper Holten’s recent Royal Opera House production had the peasants grimly facing forward as they sang their joyful song, obviously going through the motions of a ritual that’s expected of them. Stephen Medcalf’s production for Grange Park Opera, whilst more conventional in many ways, concludes the dance scene with the aristocrats standing on a balcony and Olga ladling tea from the samovar onto the peasants below, who jostle each other to catch a few drops in their mouths. This telling gesture (and power relationship) is echoed a short while later as Onegin bestows a glance from above on the besotted Tatyana, and is one of a number of deft directorial touches Medcalf brings to the piece.

© Robert Workman
© Robert Workman

Perhaps the most controversial of these (since it involves interfering with the score) is Lensky’s standing on a chair opposite Monsieur Triquet and drunkenly finishing off his verses – is the foppish and absurd Triquet what Lensky fears he might become if he loses Olga? Other nice moments include Onegin’s casually handing his wine glass to Lensky as he waltzes off with Olga, and the notion that the peasant girls’ chorus is directed at Onegin, who has already arrived to look for Tatyana. Come the duel scene, Medcalf leaves us in no doubt that Onegin and Lensky want to call off their duel, but are powerless in the face of social norms. First Lensky and then Onegin spin the barrels of their revolvers to minimise the chance of firing a live bullet, to no avail in Onegin’s case. He then reads the note he finds crumpled in his dead friend’s hand, clearly addressed to him rather than Olga, and breaks down completely.

Another effective innovation is the use of freeze-frame technique: for example, at the beginning of the Act II ball, we see what Tatyana sees – just her and Onegin against a static backdrop of other people who don’t matter. Tatyana is taken by Susan Gritton. We were warned in advance that she was having vocal problems and might not finish the night. In the end she did, but it may not have been the wisest decision – taking a Lemsip and just getting on with it might make you “a trooper” in most professions, but surely not in opera singing. As it was, Gritton’s high notes were all there, perhaps without their usual bloom, but several other notes failed to launch at all, and I think her understudy might well feel aggrieved she wasn’t given the chance.

Her opposite number as Onegin, Brett Polegato, has a wonderful richness of tone, but needs to learn what to do with his hands. Thankfully Medcalf resists the temptation to slap a moustache on him for Act III to show us that time has passed, but introduces what seems in retrospect an obvious touch – to have the chorus of St Petersbergers openly laughing at Onegin’s realisation that he loves Tatyana, rather than (as in most productions) either putting them in another room or just assuming they can’t hear him. Tellingly they, and to begin with Princess Gremina, are now up on the balcony and Onegin is below, unable to reach them.

Robert Anthony Gardiner has a pleasant, lyrical tone for Lensky’s gentler moments, but the big romantic climaxes seemed a strain for him. Frances Bourne as Olga inhabited her character more completely than anyone else, and had a fresh and warm voice to match. Kathleen Wilkinson was a Filipyevna of remarkable quality, and one wished she had been given Larina rather than Anne-Marie Owens, who sounded less like a Russian landowner than an eighth Valkyrie brought out of retirement. Ovations for Prince Gremin’s aria are now so routine that it was nice for once, in Clive Bayley, to have a bass who deserved it.

The chorus were in fine voice but seemed a little under-rehearsed, sometimes not in sync with the orchestra. Likewise, an awkward hiatus during the peasants’ dance makes me wonder whether some overly ambitious move hadn’t come off. Finally, the lighting plot needs looking at – when Lensky rhapsodises about the wonderful shade in the Larins’ garden, he may not have realised how often he (and everyone else) would be standing in it.

Martyn Brabbins marshalled the forces of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with skill and sensitivity, making this a beautifully played and thoughtfully directed Onegin let down only by some of the singing.

***11