Robert Carsen’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has been around for a while. It first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997 and was broadcast in HD and released on Blu-ray in 2007. When it was replaced by the current Deborah Warner production at The Met a few years ago they planned to bin it, which allowed the COC to pick it up cheap. It finally appeared on stage at the Four Seasons Centre this afternoon.

Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana)
© Michael Cooper

Changes are minimal. It’s still the very minimalistic Carsen aesthetic, perhaps best realized in the duel scene where the action takes place behind a scrim in a sort of cube of blue light (not grey as at The Met) and in the final confrontation between (now) Princess Gremin and Onegin where two singers and a chair are all we see and all we need as the production focuses with laser precision on the emotions of the characters. So, a few chairs, some leaves and, to be fair, spectacular costumes, all in a set bounded by high flat planes leave plenty of room for Carsen to focus on the characters, which he does to good effect. Even when he challenges the storyline in the Act 2 to 3 transition, where Onegin goes straight from washing up after the duel to dressing for the ball, with no break on stage, we don’t miss the intervening four years. Rather it reinforces the chillingly cold reactions of Onegin. It’s not a production to please the “frocks and furniture” crowd but it has real depth and subtlety.

Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) and Gordon Bintner (Onegin)
© Michael Cooper

The cast was headed up by returning Ensemble Studio graduate Gordon Bintner as Onegin. If last year’s L’elisir d’amore didn’t quite persuade one that he had arrived as a mature artist, this afternoon did. He sang with confidence, sweet tone, especially in the upper end of the voice, and some real power but it was his acting that stood out. He managed to convey both the youthfulness and the stiffness of the Onegin of Acts 1 and 2 brilliantly while, appropriately, coming apart emotionally in Act 3. It’s good to see an age appropriate singer inhabit the part so effectively. Joyce El-Khoury was an equally effective Tatyana. Her clear, bright soprano sounded appropriately youthful and her transition from naïve country girl to society grande dame was entirely convincing.

Joseph Kaiser (Lensky) and Gordon Bintner (Onegin)
© Michael Cooper

The rest of the cast were excellent too. Joseph Kaiser was a suitably impassioned Lensky with a suitably elegiac "Kuda, kuda" in Act 2. Varduhi Abrahamyan made a pleasingly girlish Olga with lovely smoky low notes. Oleg Tsibulko’s Gremin was the epitome of dignity and sincere emotion. His aria was one of the most moving moments of the afternoon. There were also notable contributions from Margaret Lattimore as Filipyevna and veteran Helene Schneiderman as Madame Larina. Johannes Debus conducted a reading of the score by turns brooding and by turns sprightly, especially in the dance music, some of which was very energetically and entertainingly danced by performers uncredited in the programme. The COC orchestra and chorus were, as ever, quite excellent.

The Carsen production, now 21 years old, has stood the test of time remarkably well and most certainly deserves the stage at the Four Seasons Centre rather than a skip at the Met.