Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin (C Major Blu-ray) ***
Kasper Holten faced something of a critical backlash (not from these quarters) for his use of dancer doubles in his recent Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin, yet their use in this opera isn’t unique – Stefan Herheim did the same in Amsterdam. Both employed flashback techniques to explore the memories of the protagonists looking back on their past. In his production for the Polish National Opera, but filmed in Valencia, film, theatre and opera director Mariusz Trelinski adds a new twist. Who is the mysterious figure clad in white, with deathly pallor, stalking Tatyana and almost directing events? This would seem to be the elderly ghost of Onegin himself, the cryptic O*** of the cast list, played – appropriately enough – by the choreographer Emil Wesolowski. He ushers Kristine Opolais’ Tatyana around the stage and takes on a Svengali-type presence in the Letter Scene, which almost transforms into a dangerous pas de deux. It’s a cold, glossy production, which doesn’t get to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s ‘lyric scenes’ but is nevertheless a striking piece of theatre.
Boris Kudlička’s sets are striking, but never wholly naturalistic. Silver birches dominate Act I, along with Trelinksi’s use of scarlet apples to signify lost innocence. Trelinski introduces dark, dangerous undercurrents to Tatyana’s name-day celebrations, with the attendees donned in sinister animal masks (Onegin a predatory wolf), although the glitzy staging is hardly in keeping with the Larins’ social status. Use is made of a walkway in front of the pit. Monsieur Triquet, in pink velvet, is aided in his couplets by ballet dancers, including males in fairy wings, in his paean to Tatyana. The St Petersburg ball of Act III looks like an illuminated chessboard and giant staircase, down which the guests – all dead – shuffle in a risible zombie Polonaise. Onegin is more dead than alive when he makes his entrance, already a broken man. Felice Ross’ lighting is dramatic, often garish (bright greens making the opening scene anything but naturalistic) and not always in perfect synchronicity with the action.
Opolais is a cool, Nordic Tatyana, remote in many of her interactions, which suits her final encounter with Onegin more than the passionate dreamer earlier in the opera. Her Tatyana is prone to fainting fits – a dramatic collapse at the edge of the forest at the end of the first scene leading straight into the moonlit Letter Scene. Opolais’ silvery soprano, with cold glints of steel, suits Trelinski’s reading of the character. The Letter Scene is gloriously sung and the interaction with the spectre of Onegin is touching. ‘Who are you, my guardian angel?’ she sings, as the scene ends with her in a crucified position. Opolais is possibly the most compelling singer-actress in the operatic world today, with such expression in her whole being. Her transformation into married lady sees her elegant but aloof, parading a cigarette-holder, hair scraped back, looking for all the world like a Grace Kelly clone, yet her clinical dismissal of Onegin draws the viewer into sympathising with him more than her.
Artur Ruciński is a fine Onegin – very nearly as good as Mariuz Kwiecien (which is high praise indeed). His Onegin is arrogant and debonair, but also seems more intrigued than usual in Tatyana. When they emerge from the trees by the end of their first encounter, he has already given her his coat to protect her from the night air. There is a dangerous, magnetic quality to this Onegin that you can see how Tatyana is drawn to him. Rucinski’s baritone has the dark Slavic timbre ideal for this role, sometimes a fraction parched at the top of his range, but he makes a good fist of ‘Uzhel ta samaya Tatyana’ in Act III, at the end of which he is raised aloft on dancers’ canes (a repeat of the crucifixion imagery of the Letter Scene) only to be dashed to the ground.
The rest of the cast is acceptable without offering anything special. Dmitry Korchak’s Lensky is suitably impulsive, although his tenor is a bit breathless on occasion and it’s not the sweetest rendition of the poet ever heard. Lena Belkina’s Olga is flighty, her light mezzo attractive, while Helene Schneiderman’s Larina and Margarita Nekrasova’s Filipyevna are treated in rather comic fashion. Günther Groissböck is a soft-grained, gentle Gremin, who doesn’t quite have all the low notes for his aria.
Omer Meir Wellber delivers a fine account of Tchaikovsky’s score, often on the swift side, but with plenty of string strength and imposing brass from the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Trelinski observes a few cuts: the écossaise in Act III is often cut, but I’m increasingly disturbed by the filleting of the peasants’ chorus from Act I, especially as Olga then references it in the following scene. Mind you, the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana isn’t especially distinguished elsewhere in the opera, so perhaps it’s not that great a loss.
Trelinski’s staging may not be as controversial or divisive as Tcherniakov’s Bolshoi show or as occasionally perplexing as Herheim in Amsterdam, but this production is certainly worth seeing for the central performances of Opolais and Rucinski and some vivid imagery, however harshly it sits against Tchaikovsky and Pushkin.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.