MUSIC / Between the lines: Nick Kimberley on Julia Hollander's new production of Eugene Onegin for English National Opera

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If Brian Mawhinney were to take too seriously Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and the effect reading novels in it has on an impressionable adolescent, he might consign all literature to pulp. Despite the opera's title, the focus of attention is Tatyana, an innocent who knows of love only from books. Yet when she writes her own love letter to Onegin, Tchaikovsky's music tells us that her love is none the less real, adult and unimpeachable. How could Tchaikovsky write music to suggest otherwise? The composer, who himself married on the basis of a couple of love letters, in order to mask his homosexuality, knew only to make his music wholehearted. The ambiguities of Pushkin's original verse-novel weren't lost on him, but nor did they much interest him.

Graham Vick's 1989 production for the English National Opera successfully probed the work's fissures, and a year ago ENO announced a revival of that staging. Since then, though, plans have changed, and Julia Hollander now has charge of a new production. It's brave of ENO to commit itself, in straitened times, to a new version. I only wish I could give an unequivocal welcome to Hollander's production. Incidental details suggest careful thought. Caroline Pope's choreography tellingly contrasts the sexuality of the Act 1 peasant dance with the formality of the high society polonaise in Act 3. When Tatyana goes to her bed, she pretends that the crumpled blankets are the sleeping body of her fantasy lover. After Onegin kills Lensky in the duel, he rushes to fold him in an embrace that reveals his true feelings. Yet such moments cannot support the broad arch of the drama, which crumbles beneath unfocused movement and ritual business. The dances have had the life choreographed out of them and the excessive precision of the crowd scenes is oddly clumsy.

Fotini Dimou's sets aim at a salon painterliness, all rustic hues at the beginning, stark and brutal by the end. The raised platform, used in some scenes to divide the stage diagonally, is more a hindrance than a help. A huge picture frame at the rear only emphasises the stiffness of the movement.

Peter Coleman-Wright is an arrogantly sexy Onegin. If the voice lacks some weight, it is cleanly produced, and his enunciation of David Lloyd- Jones' translation is exemplary. On stage Cathryn Pope often radiates a vacant diffidence that suits Tatyana; at other times her shifting emotions require a more subtle register, although the voice copes well. As Lensky, Bonaventura Bottone, usually a stage natural, seems rigid in both voice and body. Alexander Polianichko (from the Kirov) makes an impressive London conducting debut, delivering preludes at some speed, securing something more spacious once the curtain rises. His contact with the singers seemed less precise than his control of the orchestra, perhaps a sign that the production still requires focus. Maybe that will come as the run continues and isolated details are integrated.

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