Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin ****
Grange Park Opera, 30th May 2013
Audiences at Grange Park Opera are accustomed to Wafsi Kani bustling onto the stage before a note is delivered to offer up thanks to the numerous sponsors responsible for generously helping fund the production – it receives not a sou of government or lottery funding. For instance, you could sponsor the Polonaise, or the duel, or even Onegin’s ‘arrogant and callous heart’. Public coercion on private promises for future endeavours may well be undertaken. Stephen Medcalf’s staging of Eugene Onegin is so faithful to Tchaikovsky and Pushkin that, with due respect to Gazprom Marketing & Trading, sponsorship for this production should have been sought from Ronseal, for it does exactly what it says on the tin.
Of the several Onegins I’ve reviewed here, many have been flawed or controversially staged, however thoughtfully. Some are surfaced with a glossy veneer but fail to get to the heart of the opera, others enshrine baffling concepts. Medcalf’s production features no dancer doubles or spectres of Onegin, no flashbacks, no Soviet updating. It’s not as simple in scale and budget as English Touring Opera’s effort, but is delivered with a similar sincerity. Freeze frames open each act, that of the glittering St Petersburg ball attracting instant applause which transported us from leafy Hampshire directly to the Metropolitan Opera auditorium! The only eyebrow-raising directorial decision was to have the duel seemingly played out as a variant on Russian roulette, for Lensky’s pistol appeared not to have been loaded, the two rivals drawing straws for which weapon they were given. Puzzling, especially since GPO’s own website contains a very thorough account of duelling etiquette in Pushkin’s time.
Francis O’Connor’s two-tier galleried set works wonders, a balcony acting as observation platform, distancing device and effectively doubling the stage space. We are placed firmly in period, aided by splendid costumes. As Act I opens, Madam Larina, her daughters and Filpyevna are bottling jam on the first floor, from where they watch the peasant chorus and dances which take place below. Ground floor screens and doorways are daubed with elegantly handwritten verses, presumably the text of Tatyana’s letter. Framing the entire set are wooden panels depicting that most Russian landscape – silver birch trees. The only thing missing was a bed for Tatyana’s Letter Scene, but then I’ve almost given up on that, at least one not containing a slumbering Gremin (no, I’m serious). Bookcase and writing bureau sufficed.
Unlike some set designs which restrict the stage space and militate against dance, the tiny Grange stage accommodates plenty. We get the jolly peasant chorus in Act I, inexplicably cut in some productions (which makes a mockery of Olga immediately taking it up as a reprise) but vigorously danced here as a celebration of the harvest, complete with human corn dollies, courtesy of Lynne Hockney’s choreography. Waltz, cotillon, polonaise and écossaise duly follow.
Medcalf’s direction of his principals is astute. Onegin’s introduction is diffident; he refuses to take Madama Larina’s hand, but bows stiffly. His rejection of Tatyana, always a difficult moment to gauge, was perfect – as indicated by Tchaikovsky’s music, he lets her down gently, not with severity. He returns her letter, pressing it firmly into her hand. Then there’s the question of ‘the kiss’… should he or shouldn’t he? Medcalf has Onegin kiss Tatyana on the forehead, which she completely misconstrues, leading to her passionately kissing him on the lips, from which he recoils. Onegin’s following line (‘Learn to control your feelings’) thus makes perfect sense. The tables are turned in the final scene, where Tatyana mirrors Onegin’s dismissal, making him sit as she lectures him, before he impetuously attempts to kiss her.
Musically, it was far from a flawless performance, but never lacked commitment. Susan Gritton was announced as suffering from ‘aliens’ afflicting her voice and vocal gremlins were certainly present. It was rather like a clarinettist learning to negotiate the break when the reed refuses ‘to speak’ on certain notes; so Gritton’s voice would occasionally cut out crossing the passaggio; high notes were rarely affected. She coped remarkably well in a situation where other singers wouldn’t have hesitated to call in sick, her dramatic involvement especially convincing as the aristocratic Tatyana of Act III. At her best, Gritton has a limpid quality not unlike Kiri te Kanawa in her recorded effort (in English) and her Letter Scene had great emotional truth. The Onegin of Brett Polegato was graced with a firm baritone and authoritative stage presence, from diffidence to desperation. His top wasn’t as free or open as more illustrious baritones, but he phrases with sensitivity.
Frances Bourne was a marvellous young Olga, with an alluring, smoky mezzo, Medcalf handling her character perfectly. She is portrayed as the flighty, flirty younger daughter, slowest to comprehend the situation at the Larina’s ball, where she is used as a pawn in the escalating quarrel between Lensky and Onegin. Her moment of realisation, during the tenor’s ‘In your house!’, was poignant. Lensky’s farewell, after he has struck Olga across the face, has never rung truer, both characters sure in the opinion that he’ll not emerge from the duel alive. Tchaikovsky drops her completely from this point (one of opera’s great unanswered questions being ‘Whatever happened to Olga?’), but the programme book helpfully draws us back to Pushkin to explain that her grief was not to last long, marrying a lancer with undue haste. Robert Anthony Gardiner’s Lensky lacked the flex and sap of a genuine Slavic tenor and was underpowered compared with his colleagues, “Kuda, kuda” less moving, on this occasion, that the duet in canon with Onegin which followed. Medcalf has Lensky hijack the second verse of Monsieur Triquet’s paean to Tatyana, thus adding a further reason for argument.
Clive Bayley delivered a crotchety Prince Gremin, but sang his aria with so much splendid depth of tone it makes you long for his role to be longer. Medcalf does indeed extend it slightly, reappearing at the final curtain, brandishing a pistol as Onegin is crumpled in a heap at the foot of the staircase. Anne-Marie Owens was a redoubtable Madam Larina, Kathleen Wilkinson a vibrant Filipyevna and Stuart Kale impressed in Triquet’s couplets.
Occasionally, Martyn Brabbins had his work cut out co-ordinating pit and stage, the chorus, in particular, pushing ahead of the beat. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has a fine pedigree in Tchaikovsky, aided, no doubt, by its current principal conductor, Ukrainian Kirill Karabits. The brass rasped away exuberantly, while Brabbins drew silky warmth from the cellos in the introduction to Act II Scene 2. Acoustically, the Grange is an unforgiving place and clarinet solos sounded parched too often. Whilst not perfect, I rather liked the grit and the grain in the BSO’s palette, making it sound a good deal more Russian than the plushly upholstered orchestral efforts elsewhere.
For an Onegin full of dramatic truth without any directorial nonsense, Grange Park’s production should play an essential part in your summer’s festival season.
Review originally appeared at Opera Britannia.