As the Russian opera that everybody loves, Eugene Onegin might seem the easiest thing in the world to stage. But, as the director Steven Pimlott readies his production for take-off, he sounds a note of caution.
"Tchaikovsky himself was aware that it was in some ways undramatic, with very little action apart from the central duel, and with the characters revealing themselves through monologue," Pimlott says. Moreover, Pushkin's language is delicate and ironical, Jane Austen-ish rather than Dickensian, "and somehow you've got to square these two worlds, the 1820s and late-19th century Romanticism, to which Tchaikovsky brings his own tidal wave of neurosis. You may be merely writing a letter, but the emotional content is vast."
Pimlott thinks the chorus embodies the composer's own fear of large groups of people, whether it be the peasantry or the malicious gossips at the ball. There has to be, he says, a sense of them-and-us. "We have to represent a sector of society which the principals can't relate to: Onegin because he despises it; Tatiana because she's an idealist and dreamer; and Lensky - the one person who knows what love is - because he can't find anybody to play along with his vision. Each is a 'lishni chelovek' - a superfluous person, with no aim or role in society. They are each destroyed in different ways."
In Pimlott's view, Dmitri Hvorostovsky will invest the title role with exactly the right quality. "And I think Tchaikovsky really did see himself as Onegin. Arrogant and diffident by turns, a poseur who is terrified that he is not real. Is he a genius, a fake, or just - that horrifying idea - merely ordinary? Dmitri makes us care about Onegin - which is essential for the drama to work."
Pimlott's solution to the problem of creating momentum will be, he says, to move constantly between the landscape of Russia and the landscape of the mind. "I hope we will offer a coherent and recognisable world."
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