Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera House, London

 

Kasper Holten’s directorial debut in the opera house he has led for the past eighteen months has been keenly awaited: he can certainly talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?

When the curtain rises on Mia Stensgaard’s country-mansion set, Onegin (Simon Keenlyside) and Tatyana (Krassimira Stoyanova) warily circle each other, she holding a letter which she crumples in a fit of despair: Holten’s ‘Onegin’ will be a drama framed by memory. The doors are thrown open, and summer sun pours through, with the older women’s nostalgia blending with the young women’s dreams; when Lensky introduces Onegin to Tatyana, it’s love at first sight. But the ensuing peasant festivities are the antithesis of what we usually get: everyone’s in black, nobody dances, and two figures – simulacra of the protagonists – mime the love-story being sung. The effect is disturbing and sinister.

In the Letter Scene we learn what Holten is really up to, for here Tatyana has a body-double clad in an identical red dress. Tatyana sings, and the body-double writes and dances daintily round the stage, the physical embodiment of Tatyana’s younger self. In one sense this is a legitimate construction to put on a letter which is itself a multi-layered tissue of past and future, dreams and fantasies, and the choreography is delicately done. But it fatally dilutes the intensity of this great aria, and this is sad, because Stoyanova is a superb singer with a presence easily powerful enough to command the stage unaided. Worse, a similar device is used for the duel, where the fatal shot is fired by a body-double while a grief-stricken Onegin flits helplessly round the scene like a ghost. All this has a distancing effect, dissipating one’s involvement with the drama. Meanwhile the orchestral entr’acte reflecting the succession of balls in which Onegin drowns his sorrows is reduced to a bevy of 19th century pole-dancers. Body-doubles reappear during the final regretful duet, needlessly spelling out what the music is already making clear thanks to Robin Ticciati’s inspired conducting as much as to the singers.

If Keenlyside finally seems a bit underpowered, there are some nice cameos, notably Diana Montague’s Madame Larina and Christophe Mortagne’s Triquet, and in the quarrel scene Pavol Breslik’s Lensky emerges heartrendingly. But it’s debatable whether this interesting directorial take plays fair with the opera.

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