Review: Onegin at the Royal Opera House

Hammershøi - Interior in Strandgade

As any fan of Mad Men will tell you, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of an old wound being re-opened’. So either Kasper Holten, Covent Garden’s new artistic director, is a Mad Men fan, or he’s dealing with a lot of painful memories. He should probably see somebody about that.

Or at least that’s the impression you’d get from his first production, Tchaikovsky’s classic cautionary tale of doomed romance and youthful folly based on the epic poem by Pushkin.

In Holten’s production, memory is painful, regret looms large, the past is an immutable object filled with possibilities that might have been — but are now doors that are permanently shut.

This point is literally slammed home several times, firstly by the Hammershoi-inspired set design (Hammershoi was fond of painting melancholic and empty rooms with distant doors that seemed tinged with regret), doors through which Onegin and Tatyana chase one another but frequently find slammed shut. It’s not subtle, but it works. The door to the past is forever closed.

Just in case you missed the point, the programme featured Hammershoi prints and a rather good essay on "Stepping through the memory door" by Adrian Mourby

But perhaps more controversially, Holten chooses to make his point by doubling his characters. No, you didn’t drink too much at the champagne bar. There really are two Onegins and two Tatyanas on stage. The older Tatyana and Onegin sing, their younger selves remain mute. Some have described it as a gimmick, but where it works, it works spectacularly.

It’s a framing device: the older characters are remembering, reliving their younger selves. It brought to mind the Stanley Donwood short story about the invention of a time machine in which one could re-visit one’s youth but only as a ghostly apparition: unable to change, only able to watch, in silent horror, as your younger self repeated all your mistakes.

This is used to superb effect during the duel sequence, where the older Onegin silently implores his younger self to stop — but he is invisible. You feel every last second of his pain. And at Tatyana’s naming party, another of the most important scenes of the opera, the doubling effect affords Holten the opportunity to have the young Tatyana literally hiding (atop a bookcase) — and you feel every last moment of her shame.

But the device is taken too far. In the closing scene, as Onegin and Tatyana speak of how close they came to love, and how different things might have been, the young, could-have-been Tatyana and Onegin suddenly skip onto the stage and embrace. At least one person in the audience audibly groaned. Why over-egg the pudding?

The original opera is something of a flawed masterpiece (Tchaikovsky was reluctant to even call it an opera on release) so it seems fitting that Holten’s production contained so many flaws and flashes of inspiration, too. Call Holten’s production gimmicky if you like, but the original opera contains several jarring scenes that seem inserted simply to please popular tastes — the peasants’ harvest song, to name but one — so in many ways, Holten is brave in pandering less to popular tastes than Tchaikovsky himself did at the time. Onegin is, in many ways, an aristocratic predecessor to the twentieth century kitchen sink drama — more concerned with the personal, inner turmoil of a few interconnected characters  than with the pomp and ceremony favoured by the fashions of the time. This was a production that emphasised the personal.

But neither Tchaikovsky’s, nor this production’s flaws, detract from what is ultimately an extraordinarily moving and modern masterpiece about how the dreams of youth so quickly become the regrets of old age, regrets we are unable to change. One is reminded of L.P. Hartley — the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. One is reminded even more vividly of such things by the fact that, for almost an hour, Lensky’s body remains on stage, slain by the young Onegin, until the final curtain. Who needs an elephant in the room when you can dump a corpse on the middle of the stage?

In short, this was not a production of subtlety  but then again, it’s not an opera of subtlety either — it’s an emotionally charged tale of teenage angst turning to adult turmoil — and the music (and, as far as I was concerned, the conducting) reflected that.

The orchestra stalls - a great view, but the Grand Tier offers better acoustic quality

To my less than perfectly trained ear (some people complained of a slight hoarseness towards the end), the singing seemed flawless — although the Royal Opera House has always had less than perfect acoustics, which left me straining to hear properly at times. Perversely, some of the most expensive seats seem to have the poorest auditory definition — although of course, they have the best view. And this is definitely an opera in which the subject matter calls for acting, as well as singing, talent.

Simon Keenlyside was a brilliant Onegin, singing with passion and acting with conviction. More bohemian than dandy, he shrugged, swigged from a hip flask, yet transformed magically into the melancholic figure of the final act, his heavy coat a literal weight on his shoulders, as he spoke of his unconsummated love.

Krassimira Stoyanova was at her best in the turbulent expression of the Letter Scene in Act 1 — her performance in the third act left me slightly cold. But perhaps I was simply rooting for poor old Onegin, destined forever to have Tatyana’s door slammed finally in his face.

Why couldn’t they have had an affair and left it at that? Because honour dictated otherwise, because youthful romantic ideals so rarely translate into real, adult relationships, and, ultimately, because the joys of youth are wasted on the young.

By having Onegin and Tatyana’s older selves revisit these moments of regret, Holten’s production gets to the core of how Tchaikovsky interpreted Pushkin’s Onegin. Some may call it gimmicky. I call it flawed, but brilliant. This was Holten’s first production as artistic director at Covent Garden — I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Alastaire Allday

Alastaire Allday is a copywriter and journalist based in London.

PS – Dear ROH — as you know, the surtitle machine didn’t work until after the interval. That left a lot of people scratching their heads. It didn’t bother me as I’m familiar with the opera and with both main translations of the original Pushkin text. But I suspect a fair few people in the audience didn’t have a clue what was going on, particularly with more than one Tatyana / Onegin on stage. I actually found the ability to concentrate on the acting, singing, and orchestra without constantly glancing up at the text quite liberating, and enjoyed the first half very much — but had I been less familiar with the opera, I might have been seriously annoyed. A ticket sets you back somewhere in the region of £150 — that’s quite a lot of money to pay for something that you can’t follow if you’re unfamiliar with the libretto… Sort it out!

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