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Eugene Onegin

by on 2 August 2021

Images of the Superfluous Man 

Eugene Onegin

by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, based on a story by Alexander Pushkin

West Green House Opera, Theatre on the Lake, Hartley Wintney until 1st August   

Review by Mark Aspen

O tempora, o mores !   Cicero’s disgust could easy be directed at the many modern theatre directors who insist on pushing an opera out of the time or place that the composer or his librettist had set.  How refreshing then that for West Green House Opera’s Eugene Onegin director John Ramster has decided to set it “in its ‘proper’ period of Pushkin’s own making”, but it seems a shame, O tempora, o mores, that he feels the need to apologise for his “radical and unexpected decision”.    It could be seen as difficult to set it differently, as so much depends on the social structures of the Russia of the early Nineteenth Century, with its finely delineated hierarchy from serfs to aristocrats. 

Onegin himself is a child of these times and manners.  He is the archetypical “superfluous man” of Russian literature, a younger son of noble birth, but with no practical place, a man by nature inclined to be indifferently unsympathetic.  Turgenev, who coined the term, described such a man as incapable of understanding himself or others.  However, the opera is much more focussed on Tatyana Larina, whom we initially see as a reserved, romantic and remiss girl and who becomes a dignified, determined and dedicated lady in the course of the opera, than it is with the self-centred Eugene Onegin.  Certainly Tchaikovsky himself declared that he felt more for Tatyana than he did for Onegin.  He also insisted that his work was not so much an opera as a series of lyric scenes.  Indeed Pushkin’s original verse novella is written as a series of stanzas in sonnet-like format. 

Ramster not only succeeds in being true to both Tchaikovsky and Pushkin’s intentions, but excels in recreating the feel and place of the countryside around St Petersburg in the 1820’s.    West Green House Opera’s new delightful Theatre on the Lake serves his purpose well.  There could not be a more evocative setting.  Sitting at tables in café-théâtre mode, fairy-lit within wide waterside pavilions, we look across to where, poised on the edge of an island, the stage levitates above the lake.  Perfumes of flowers from West Green’s magnificent gardens drift on the breeze.  Designer Richard Studer has assimilated the Regency chinoiserie bridge within the set so that the whole island becomes Madame Larina’s estate during the whole of the first half.  Period accurate costumes (empire line dresses, barn-door breeches, properly tied stocks) complete the picture, thanks to Adrian Linford and his team.

Madame Larina’s household comprises four women.  Each has a different view of romantic love.  The oldest is the long-retained nanny to the daughters, Filipyevna, whose views are somewhat down to earth.  She sings that if she spoke of love “my late mother-in-law would have chased me from the face of the earth”.  She had had an arranged marriage when she was thirteen years old… to a younger boy!  Filipyevna has a stabilising influence and, playing the role as a rather fierce but loving nurse, contralto Rhonda Browne is an imposing figure with a singular timbre that really suits this part.   Larina herself has a pragmatic view about love, having been married to the girls’ father, a country landowner, to avoid an affair with a gambling guardsman, she avers “… my husband loved me truly … but trusted me unreservedly”.  Distinguished mezzo Sarah Pring brings presence to the part of Larina, her rich creamy voice that of the matriarch … plus she is pretty nifty on her toes.  Pring is no stranger to the London stage, and to country house opera, most recently in Glyndebourne’s Katya Kabanová.  (The younger of Larina’s daughters is Olga, sung by Angharad Lyddon and the Pring-Lyddon mother-younger daughter partnership has been seen before in country house opera in Hampshire, at the Grange Festival’s premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park.)  

Olga is happy and light-hearted, whereas her elder sister Tatyana (always called Tanya by her family) is idealistic and introspective.  Angharad Lyddon, who was BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2019, portrays Olga with just the right carefree touch, with an attractive bubbly personality.  Her melodious mezzo has a lightness that lifts the spirit.   As the bookish Tatyana, Jenny Stafford has the acting ability to put across with finesse the transformation of the shy girl of Act One, secretly looking for a romantic adventure, into the self-assured and graceful noblewoman of Act Three.  Her lyrical soprano voice is a joy of fluid refinement.

As they talk about their attitudes towards love, Tchaikovsky gives all four of the female principals an opening showcase of their skills.  The two sisters sing a pensive duet “Have you not sighed, hearing that gentle voice sing of love”, whilst the older women reminisce in their own duet and draw a pragmatic view of love, “Habit is sent down from above, to our place of happiness”.  The result is a cornucopia of music, four voices entwining with a music score that builds from solo harp to strings to full orchestra.  Derek Clark’s reduced orchestration for twenty-two instruments is beautifully interpreted by conductor Lada Valesova, making her debut appearance at West Green.  The score is widely encompassing and includes folk music and dance, and representations of physical sounds, such as pen scratching on paper, initially by the oboe, in the letter scene.

The extension of the set from the stage across the bridge enables the audience to see the approach of characters from a distance, particularly effective in the twilight.  As the quartet finishes, serfs enter, and celebrate the harvest with songs and presentation of wheat sheaves.  Weariness aside, they dance a mazurka, which is taken up by most of the cast including the principals.  Choreographer Charlie Morgan shows great skill in bringing together two dancers (Charlie Mellor and Louise Rigby), the chorus of eight and the principals on a crowded and smallish stage, to create wonderful dance interludes,  mazurkas, waltzes, a cotillion and a polonaise, that are a delight to watch.

The bridge is also brings the young gentlemen, the ill-fated friends, Olga’s fiancé Vladimir Lensky and Eugene Onegin, who has newly inherited a nearby estate and just arrived from St Petersburg.    Their arrival sets off a hormone-charged sequence of events that propel the plot on its tragic way.   Lensky has some of the best arias in the opera, and his “How happy, how happy I am!” is an articulate love-song to Olga. Thomas Elwin’s portrayal of Lensky of an earnest young man head-over-heels in love is spot on.  The poetic protestations of his love and sung with ardour as Elwin luxuriates in the music, in his clearly projected tenor phrasing, are vibrant and passionate.  Olga teases and flirts in response, but meanwhile Tatyana has clearly immediately fallen for Onegin.  Nicholas Lester really inhabits the part of the arrogant Onegin, even his supercilious bearing tells it all.  Stage presence is heightened by Lester’s resonant baritone voice, strong and masterly phrased.

In the letter scene, Jenny Stafford captures, in the Letter Aria, the daring of Tatyana writing to Onegin “Let me die, but first…”  We all know it is an unwise crush: don’t do it!  As she goes on “Are you my guardian angel or my tempter”, the horns underline our misgivings.  She sees in her mind Onegin coming to her in her bedroom – steamy stuff.  In the very next scene, in contrast to the peasant girls happily singing as they pick berries, Tatyana gets her cruel put-down from Onegin to her abject humiliation, which is painful to see. 

Shortly afterwards, a ball is held for Tatyana’s name-day.  Ramster, with the accuracy of an historian, his erstwhile vocation, tells us it is 12th January 1821.  The guests’ joyful singing and dancing is punctuated with gossip, much to the irritation of Onegin.  Another of his niggles is that as a cultivated gentleman he expected Tatyana to write in French not in Russian.  This is point is underlined when Monsieur Triquet, their elderly French tutor sings a song in honour of Tatyana, “Contemplons la charme et la beauté.”  Experienced tenor Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts has huge fun with the role of Triquet, presenting him as a colourful caricature of Luciano Pavarotti, smiling, paunchy and with his signature oversized handkerchief, topped with a blue curly wig and clad all in pink!  His delivery has everyone bouncing with him on “brille et luit” … and a fat carp jumping to break the surface of the lake!  But inevitably tensions get out of hand, Onegin takes out his pique with Lensky by flirting with Olga, Lensky gets jealous, Olga teases him for his jealousy… the vicious spiral winds up until Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel.

The duel scene, very atmospheric in this lakeside wooded setting, gives Lensky his final great aria, the well-known Куда, куда вы удалились  (Where have you gone, golden days of my spring?) in another polished performance by Elwin.  The canon that follows, in which both men sing regretting the fruitless folly of the duel, is another outstanding moment.  Lensky’s second Zaretsky (Peter James Norris) however, bends the rules and the duel goes ahead, killing Lensky.  Cleverly, Ramster presents the duel, not stage left-stage right, but upstage-downstage, so we see Lensky throughout.  He does not fall, but spreads his arms Christ-like, for he has sacrificed his life, a pertinent interpolated comment.  The lighting at this point is another triumph, Lensky bathed in red, the stage bathed in red, then the whole lake and surrounding woods bathed in red.  Sarah Bath, the lighting designer has a coup-de- théâtre in combining theatre lights with architectural lighting and the garden illuminations.    

There is a sharp contrast as we move into the final Act, at a grand ball in St Petersburg nearly four years later.   All is white and gold and very splendid, just the place more splendid well-executed dances, including the Polonaise.  When Onegin enters, he is more subdued, the Grand Tour of Europe having failed to assuage his regret at Lensky’s death.  He is however still the dandified and self-centred “superfluous man”.  Then he sees Tatyana, but hardly recognises her at first, for time has moved on, and she is now the aristocratic wife of the elderly general, Prince Gremin.  When he asks to be introduced, it is Gremin himself who does so, after explaining the intense depth of love that Tatyana has brought to him in his later years, to the great happiness of both of them.  ” … she always appears in the radiant, radiant halo of an angel!”   Gremin’s aria is yet another highlight in Tchaikovsky’s opera, and a virtuoso one for a bass of the statue of Julian Close, who plays the role with great empathy.  Close, who can be found on the stages of The Met’, The Garden and The Coli’, has a voice of velvet richness which accentuates the sincerity and depth of his love for Tatyana.

When Onegin pursues Tatyana the next day, even he can see that things have changed, but he has fallen in love with her.  When he protests his love, her first reaction is an oh-really?-moment.   But she falters momentarily, remembering that she had once been infatuated with him.  Nevertheless, regaining herself, she remains strong and true to her husband, her morals, her station in life, and to herself.   Onegin’s plea for them to elope is firmly rejected. 

In this last scene, present as background figures are Larina and Filipyevna.  I can’t quite see why.  This theatrical conceit of “presences”, images of notion, runs thought the production.  Sometimes it works, as in the ghost of Lensky troubling Onegin, or the thought of Onegin visiting Tatyana’s boudoir, but often it doesn’t; one qualm, though in a stupendous production.

Eugene Onegin has a poetic symmetry, Tatyana’s rejection mirrored by Onegin’s rejection.  A nice turning of the tables, yes, but Tatyana has grown in personality and moral strength, whereas Onegin has lost a good friend, and his personal integrity, to no avail.  Tatyana has taken a journey of self-discovery, but Onegin remains still the vain and selfish “superfluous man”

Mark Aspen, July 2021

Photography by Matthew Williams-Ellis

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