Eugene Onegin is essentially about looking back in sorrow, as it deals with regrets about what might have been and on what has actually happened instead. The characters sing of their past and their broken dreams. Sorrow is perfectly rendered in the most stunning moments of this staging, from Tatyana’s letter writing scene to some even more arresting pages, such as Lensky'a aria before the duel, which is unusually staged with the mournful presence of Olga and the other ladies.

Marius Brenciu (Lensky), Ketevan Kemoklidze (Olga) and Igor Golovatenko (Onegin) © Teatro San Carlo
Marius Brenciu (Lensky), Ketevan Kemoklidze (Olga) and Igor Golovatenko (Onegin)
© Teatro San Carlo

Onegin is not a work that breaks with academic convention, yet this production was more of a classical interpretation and proved surprising to regular operagoers at the Teatro San Carlo, who are mainly Verdi and Puccini devotees. They were overheard describing it as a different, interesting and provocative production.

Essentially the focus of the staging was a meditation on the impossibility of dreams to come true. We are enthralled by this atmosphere from the opening notes, when Madame Larina and Filippyevna hear the voices of Tatyana and Olga singing a love song, and Larina begins to recall her own days of courtship and her marriage of convenience.

John Axelrod‘s conducting of the story of Tatyana, the incurably romantic dreamer, and Onegin, the callous dandy, digs into the ill-fated souls of the characters. It is hard to imagine a more affectionate involvement of a conductor in an opera. Even more valuably, his conducting focuses on a controlled bel canto line, rather than expressing the music's emotions viscerally.

Carmela Remigio was a great Tatyana, the real protagonist of the work, tender and thoughtful. She entranced the audience in her famous letter scene, and while the music expresses the young lady’s emotional progression, under Axelrod’s guidance she masterfully dilated the final part of this scene to the limits of an unbearable tension.  

Igor Golovatenko was first-rate in the title role. The baritone proved successful at handling one of the most demanding characters in the Russian repertoire, and with his beautiful voice and outstanding empathy, he made the unscrupulous rascal almost likeable. His singing was always perfectly phrased, secure and elegant. In the last act he even emphasized these qualities, while in the very final scene, his performance became impassionate and moving.

Eugene Onegin © Teatro San Carlo
Eugene Onegin
© Teatro San Carlo

Marius Brenciu portrayed an excellent Lensky, with a beautiful tenor voice and unforced vocalism. His performance was confident and polite, and the escalation to his duel with Onegin was startling. His passionate delivery and warm demeanour convinced in his interpretation of “Kuda, Kuda”, rendering the love-struck poet convincingly, drawing the audience into the sadness of his fate.

Dmitrij Beloselskij was a wheelchair-bound Prince Gremin, Tatyana's elderly husband of Act III, singing with dignity and powerful low notes. The female roles were beautifully sung; Ketevan Kemoklidze offered freshness and immediacy to depict a frivolous, flirtatious Olga, who encourages Onegin's advances in order to make Lensky jealous. Giovanna Lanza and Elena Sommer were great in the roles of Madame Larina and Filippyevna. Lanza's Larina was a real stand-out of this staging, memorably presenting her as an addle-brained elderly lady.

The Teatro di San Carlo Orchestra found the right orchestral colours for each one of Tchaikovsky's “lyric scenes”. Axelrod made Tchaikovsky enter our heart without bypassing the brains of the audience, by carefully chosen tempi.

Michał Zaniecki’s production is intended to be simple and suggestive, so the emphasis was on drab desolation. The joyful moments in the score, like the dancing scenes which open Acts II and III, are rendered with a dreamlike atmosphere. The stylistic code of the staging was represented by ice blocks, which were the symbolic representation of the protagonist's frigid heart. In the duel scene, ice begins to break under the protagonists’ feet, and in Act III it melts completely to water. The gloomy lighting added to an atmosphere of deliberate wretchedness in which each of the lyrical scenes were consumed.

This staging received a Spanish award for best new production in 2011, and it is easy to see why, drawing enthusiastic applause in a way that has not ben seen for a long time at the San Carlo.