English National Opera at the London Coliseum, November 12
Deborah Warner’s hauntingly beautiful and moving new staging of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece is a co-production between ENO the Metropolitan Opera, a fact that was widely noted and seized on in the first-night reviews. Broadly speaking, suspicion fell on the Met for having dictated a more ‘traditional’ than usual approach from this director, and the suggestion—variously implied and spelt out—was that the Met’s conservatism was reflected in the look of the production, luxurious by ENO standards. As vital as theatrically innovative and visually adventurous stagings are for the survival of those works in regular repertory, surely we should worry when a creative team is criticized for doing what the composer and librettist intended? For every traditional production that fails boringly, there will always be some cutting-edge laziness to match it (look no further than ENO’s concurrent Castor and Pollux). Better to judge every staging on its way of articulating—or not—the piece in question, and on that basis Warner’s Onegin is one of the strongest interpretations in its emotional impact: cutting straight to the heart of the work, she shows how Onegin is simultaneously and devastatingly about two colliding Russian societies—rustic provincialism and cosmopolitan decadence—and three wasted lives.
The ENO-Met co-production debate is certainly one worth having—watch this space—but if the most obvious area of collaboration between these companies is contemporary opera, there is no reason why the same version of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Lyric Scenes’ shouldn’t work at both addresses. Both theatres are too big for the Onegin ideal—prompted by fears that the work’s special, intimate qualities and concerns with young love would be smothered in a big professional house, Tchaikovsky famously sought to have the opera premiered by students—but both have of course witnessed great performances of this masterpiece before. By opting for a gentle updating from Pushkin’s time to a Chekhovian late 19th century, as shown in Chloe Obolensky’s handsome costumes, Warner sprang no visual surprises; those expecting something edgy from her (for example, in the vein of her Glyndebourne Don Giovanni from the mid ’90s) were overlooking the fairly traditional appearance of her recent ENO Death in Venice. If anything, the tone of Warner’s Onegin resembled a more lovingly detailed and lavish version of Graham Vick’s celebrated Glyndebourne staging, and while it perhaps lacked some of the stunning insights of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Bolshoy show, the most recent production to have been seen in London, it was also without its irritations.
Where the influence of the Met was conceivably felt was in the bigger-than-usual budget for extras and dancers. Kim Brandstrup’s movement was integral to many of the scenes, though it felt artful at the start in the scene with balletic serfs. Neither here nor at the Larin ball are professional dancers called for or really required, but Brandstrup helped to ensure that the choreographed chaos of this ball—the fourth scene, and thus the centre of the work—was truly the dramatic fulcrum. And the dancers were especially welcome in the Ecossaise, played here with thrilling verve under Edward Gardner’s baton.
Gardner certainly gave us what Tchaikovsky wrote, and from the sighing opening phrases to the tormented final bars he drew superb playing from his orchestra. He also gave us one daring detail that Tchaikovsky didn’t think of—a long, suspenseful pause at Onegin’s and Tatyana’s farewell kiss, during which the audience held its collective breath. Otherwise the performance was generally propulsive, while allowing room for a nuanced and warm interpretation that counts as one of Gardner’s finest achievements at the Coliseum to date. The chorus was on similarly outstanding form.
Respecting the structure of the seven scenes, Warner had a curtain descend after each of them, every time filling the proscenium with an appropriately autumnal or wintry video projection. Perhaps the only weakness in Tom Pye’s set designs was the cavernous size of the barn he put on stage for the first three scenes, which didn’t quite convey the intimacy required for the Letter Scene (there was no real bed) or the exchanges between Tatyana and Filippyevna. But—apart from making one wonder whether ENO isn’t planning a Fanciulla sometime soon—the barn otherwise conjured up a wonderfully rustic backdrop for the busy opening scene, and Warner’s direction here was refreshingly free of the usual clichés, with not even a single vodka bottle in sight. Her direction of the individual characters was also wonderfully detailed, and the two elder women were among the most memorable I have seen in these parts: the Madame Larina of Diana Montague and Filippyevna of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, whose world-weary walk was as expressive as her warm voice. Claudia Huckle’s Olga, with a darkly focused mezzo, was nicely distinctive, too.