Kasper Holten’s take on Tchaikovsky’s ‘road not taken’ romance hits home in a Royal Opera co-pro.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

February 28, 2014

Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name, is without doubt the ultimate ‘road not taken’ opera – some would say the perfect night out for anyone wanting to wallow in their own mid-life crisis. Tchaikovsky knew a thing or two about melancholy, and so too it would seem does Kasper Holten, Artistic Director of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House (both were 39-year-olds when they tackled this fevered tale and love and loss.) Now Sydney has a chance to see some first-rate European opera as Holten’s hyper-intelligent, deeply moving production arrives from London with a clutch of international talent supplementing a fine Australian cast.

The staging is essentially naturalistic, as befits this most Chekhovian of operas, set inside an imposing 19th-century Russian country house beautifully realised in Mia Stensgaard’s stately designs and revealingly illuminated by Wolfgang Goebbel’s  detailed lighting plot. All is not quite as it seems, however, because the director has a crucial device up his sleeve. The latter part of the opera takes place a number of years after Onegin coldly rejects Tatyana’s youthful declaration of love. Holten chooses to show us the whole messy affair in flashback, using two actors to play the younger couple, observed at all times by their older, wiser selves.

It’s a simple idea that reaps a devastating harvest as the opera proceeds. A scene, for example, where Tatyana’s old nurse sings to the young girl of the effects of age is poignant enough in a conventional staging, but when Tatyana’s older self is also a rueful observer the impact is doubled. It’s this two-for-the-price of one level of angst that gives Holten’s staging its impact, and if you have to concentrate that little bit harder to take it all on board, the emotional dividends are well worth the investment. Along the way, the detritus of memory gradually builds up on the stage – a torn up letter, a pile of books, a broken chair, even eventually a corpse.

There are some ‘unreal’ moments, such as Tatyana climbs into a bookcase early on while Holten daringly plunges the chorus into near darkness. But these effects are there to help us to know when we are meant to go inside a characters head, and seldom distract. This is a director who really understands what the music is saying and responds accordingly with potent stagecraft.

It’s an excellent cast with no real weak links, but it must be said that Nicole Car is an absolute stand out. Her Tatyana is simple, thoughtful, passionate and bookish all at once. She never overplays her hand, yet convinces throughout as she runs the emotional gamut. Her vocal performance is remarkable. Her rich, clean soprano is evenly produced across the full range, never losing power at the bottom, never forcing at the top, and crucially connected at all times to the character. Having seen Krasimira Stoyanova’s performance in the Covent Garden cast I was curious to see how a younger Tatyana would fare (and prepared to be disappointed as Stoyanova was quite remarkable – well worth the price of the DVD if you have the inclination). Car is different – closer in some ways to the younger Tanyana (the excellent dancer Emily Ranford), less agonised perhaps but also more believable when singing in ‘real time’, as it were. The letter scene is at the heart of Holten’s production (as it should be) and here Car is magnificent. As she shoves the fatal paper at her younger self she relives her excited memories, yet at the same time wishes she could be spared the pain. Such moments of simplicity and complexity are the hallmark of Holten’s revelatory approach.

Her Onegin is the Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis making his Opera Australia debut with style. His rich, dark baritone blends well with Car, surmounting the orchestra throughout and showing no sign of strain at the top. He’s a tiny bit pushed at the bottom but perhaps that’s the fault of the writing. Dramatically it’s a straightforward, no-nonsense, romantic performance where perhaps a little more ‘nonsense’ wouldn’t go amiss. The devastating moment where he tells Tatyana to “learn restraint – other men would be less understanding” could use a little more cynical sangfroid. Still, he’s never less than watch-and-listenable with his Byronic locks and impeccable Russian.

James Egglestone as his friend, the proto-poetic Lensky is more than acceptable, singing with passion and firm, powerful tone. The vocal placement is a little far back which means he lacks brightness when not at forte and his portamento before top notes feels a little mannered. Dramatically he does all the right things, he just doesn’t quite cut the necessary dash. Sian Pendry’s Olga is suitably cheerful, naïve and a little bit silly by turns, singing sweetly at all times. If she emerges as so much less interesting than Tatyana that is more Tchaikovsky’s fault than hers.

As Madame Larina, Dominica Matthews is closer to Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennett than Diana Montague in the ROH production, less warm, more edgy – probably a drinker. It’s a broad, appealing portrayal and sung with firmness and elegance. Jacqueline Dark’s nurse is equally stylish of voice. She makes an earthy Filippyevna, careful never to overplay her hand, creating a sympathetic three-dimensional character.

Russian bass Konstantin Gorny is the real deal, singing his catchy aria with unmistakable authenticity and gravitas. His bottom notes are to die for. Kanen Breen puts in a lovely cameo as the French dandy, Mons. Triquet, singing with an easy lyrical flair, while Adrian Tamburini puts in another warm vocal performance in the cough-and-a-spit part of Lensky’s second.

Musically, Guillaume Tourniere proves an adept Tchaikovskian in the pit, encouraging the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra to embrace this most romantic of Russian scores from that first extraordinary expression of melancholy to its high-voltage, passion-drenched finale. The band play along with relish, enjoying the big waltzes and the polonaise and with some lovely horn and wind solos in those poignant love scenes. The chorus are also on excellent form, producing a big, beefy sound; warm and authentically Russian, and beautifully disciplined in their stage work too.

A co-production deal with Covent Garden is just one of the ways that Lynden Terracini hopes to make his dollar stretch further. It’s a smart move, artistically and one hopes financially – and on this showing he’s onto a winner. Coming out of the opera house, the appreciative mutterings of the first night patrons showed they had clearly been prepared to put in the hard yards and embrace a bit of thinking-man’s opera. A moving, beautifully staged, and excellently sung production. Don’t miss.

Eugene Onegin is in Sydney until March 28 and then in Melbourne April 16-May 9.