No lake, no duel, no singing serfs.
When Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Eugene Onegin opened in Moscow in 2006, Russia's most famous Tatyana, Galina Vishnevskaya, called it an act of vandalism. Subsequently seen in Beijing, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, and in just four performances with alternating casts at the Royal Opera House last week, Tcherniakov's Onegin is less shocking for the liberties it takes with the text of Tchaikovsky's "lyric scenes" than for its dynamism and discipline, its cool fusion of cinematic influences, and its sensitivity to this rapturous, neurotic score. With Dmitri Jurowski at the helm of the Bolshoi orchestra – all sighing horns, tumbling cellos and dew-fresh flutes – and alert to each catch of breath, it is a startling testament to tradition, innovation and ensemble work.
Tcherniakov's staging unfolds in two interiors and two eras: the muted, gold-gray country drawing-room of the Larina household in the early 1900s, far removed from the ideological agitations of pre-revolutionary Moscow, and a scarlet-carpeted, chandelier-decked, new-money, private dining-room in 1990s St Petersburg. The curtain lifts to a comfortable babble of chatter and laughter and the chink of china and glass, as Madame Larina (Makvala Kasrashvili) tipsily chivvies her daughters into entertaining her guests, who respond by singing the harvest songs. With Bergmanesque simplicity, Tcherniakov establishes the character of the rural society, transforming the Nurse (Nina Romanova) from Pushkin's snobbish caricature to a modest, intelligent woman whose prevarications are born from a desire to protect distracted, depressive Tatyana (Tatyana Monogarova). This is a family that gets by, as many do, by pretending its problems are less severe than they are, by gathering its friends around the table.
Shame blazes brightly in this Onegin – literally so, as Gleb Filshtinsky's expressive lighting designs dazzle in crescendo with the music or cut to near darkness as first Tatyana, then Alexei Dolgov's Lensky, and finally Mariusz Kwiecien's elegant, estranged Onegin are mortified and humiliated in love. From Bergman we move to the boldest Expressionism in the Letter Scene, a rejection of chilling stillness and austerity, and an explosion of mass hysteria during Tatyana's name-day party. Innocent laughter acquires a menacing, bullying tone as Dolgov's Lensky performs Monsieur Triquet's couplets with biting sarcasm, and a toy dog and pop-gun for props. Lensky's death is here a squalid accident – the result of a hungover tussle over a shotgun while Margarita Mamsirova's brittle, glib Olga searches the floor for a lost earring – his valedictory aria sung, almost whispered, to the counterpoint of an elderly guest's initial confusion and wistful sympathy.
From the hasty straightening of ties and jackets at Onegin's arrival to the slumbering drunk at the party, and the female guest who cannot resist a third helping of dessert; from Tatyana's anguished rebirth as perma-smiled hostess, to Anatoly Kotscherga's touching removal of his spectacles before Prince Gremin's great aria – Tcherniakov's observational details are too numerous to credit in full. More impressive is the way in which these tiny gestures and grand fractures are bound into such a thematically tight, compelling narrative. Tchaikovsky's opera is here, more than ever, one heartbreak after another, the voices clear, dark, rich and natural, the singing beautifully supported and decorated by Jurowski and the orchestra. An unforgettable, harrowing, thrilling experience.
Away from Covent Garden, this was a week of thrift and pluck as Grimeborn and Tête à Tête plunged into their annual festivals and the first productions opened on the Edinburgh Fringe. For fledgling companies in need of welcoming ears, London is the safer bet. In Edinburgh's Hill Street Theatre, I was one fifth of the audience at the start of composer-director Joshua Goodman's The Man and Men, and one third by the end.
But when an opera purports to investigate "masculinity, human loss and sexual identity" in a post-apocalyptic setting, with a coloratura soprano (Ema Walton) as Man, and five scarily made-up, androgynous instrumentalists as Power, Love, Sex, Kingdom and Space, it's bound to be a bumpy ride.
Given the youth of all involved (most are students at Huddersfield, and will be reprising the opera in November's Contemporary Music Festival), I was reasonably impressed by The Man and Men. Goodman's hiccuping, melismatic vocal lines make enormous demands on Walton's light, well-focused voice, often at the expense of Tom Riley's libretto. Most interesting was the lyricism that shot through the once modish use of extended techniques – as though the ghost of Vaughan Williams had popped up behind a young Maxwell Davies. As Edinburgh hots up, so should the audience figures. It's not every day you get to see a soprano bend a percussionist backwards over an upturned bucket and use his arms as beaters.
Back at the Arcola Theatre in London, Grimeborn opened with Ryedale Festival Opera's double bill of The Prodigal Son and Mendelssohn's seldom-heard romcom The Homecoming, with an excellent, if overloud, chamber orchestra. Director Joe Austin drew a finely detailed performance of Britten's morality tale from a well-balanced cast led by Mark Chaundy as the malicious Tempter. Austin and conductor Elizabeth Burgess, who directed from the chamber organ, both seemed happier here than in the virginal froth of the Mendelssohn, which they relocated to the early 1960s. Kathy Taylor-Jones was touching as Frau Schulz, Rebecca Hodgetts captivating as her foster-child Lisbeth and quietly scene-stealing in her silent role in the Britten.
'The Man and Men' (0131-226 6522 ); to 30 Aug; Grimeborn (020-7503 1646) to 21 Aug
Anna Picard goes transatlantic, courtesy of the Edinburgh Festival's guest productions of Montezuma and Porgy and Bess
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