OPERA / Resonances of Fate: Edward Seckerson feasts on Glyndebourne's Eugene Onegin, the first production purpose-built for the new theatre
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Saturday 04 June 1994
Something remarkable is happening at Glyndebourne, and the birth of a handsome new theatre is only part of it. As anyone interested in the theatre of opera will know, Graham Vick is now installed as director of productions. And if his revelatory new staging of Eugene Onegin really is the shape of Glyndebourne to come, then the eyes and ears of the operatic world will soon know where to look and listen and learn.
Productions of Tchaikovsky's 'lyrical scenes' have grown bigger and brasher and lusher over the years. The old Bolshoi tradition gave way to the new, and Tchaikovsky's attempts to keep faith with the elegance and economy of Pushkin, his determination to eschew traditional 19th- century operatic excesses and keep his musical brush-strokes light on the canvas, have been overwhelmed by decades of heavy-handedness.
At Glyndebourne, Andrew Davis discreetly touches in the pastel woodwinds and strings of the first scene, while cream muslin drapes unfurl like the flyleaf of a storybook on an open stage, a bright Arcadian vision, where cleanliness really is next to godliness: all fresh-scrubbed pine and crisp linens - you can smell them; the kind of rural heaven, peasant bliss, that exists only in the minds of old Russian storytellers. Vick and his designer, Richard Hudson, make it a spotless, safe, unnatural environment. Only Tatyana sees it as a prison. The real world is elsewhere - in her daydreams.
In Elena Prokina's wonderful performance, you see her thoughts. You see Onegin in her eyes as she rushes downstage centre to share feelings she can no longer keep in the secret of her heart. You really believe that her life changes for ever with the letter scene. The introspection of her singing is unforgettable. 'Are you my guardian angel or some vile seducer?' The voice floats, the vibrato drains with these words - like a hymn, the last moments of her 'mournful trance', the last moments of night before a brave new dawn. I've never seen a Tatyana vocally and physically transform like this before. It's here that Vick pulls off a moment of pure theatrical genius. As the intensity rises in the orchestra, Tatyana does something mundane: she fills her wash-basin with water. Then, as the ecstatic climax approaches, she lifts the basin high above her head like some kind of religious offering - and pours it over herself. The first reckless gesture of the rest of her life.
There's a touch of irony in this that is so true to the spirit of Pushkin. Tchaikovsky sometimes misses it; Vick makes sure it's there. Visualise a bevy of peasant maidens traversing the stage, arms cross-linked in the manner of a classical corps de ballet. It's a cheeky and irresistible allusion. And there's another where that came from in the grand Polonaise of the St Petersburg Ball, which Vick and Hudson launch with a glittering, silver-clad pas de deux. Sumptuous drapes act as cinematic dissolves, sweeping across the stage to reveal a shifting tableau of the idle rich - yawning dandies and their tantrum-prone charges. The sense of infinite space makes for a stunning contrast to the cramped pandemonium of the 'party' for Tatyana's name-day - all tea-drinking old crones and badly behaved children. Again Pushkin's irony is not lost on Vick, who plays it to the hilt, but deftly.
In another theatrical revelation (carried over from his ENO production), Tatyana - rejected and dejected - is discovered alone during the prelude to this scene, only to be swept up in the crowds spilling through double doors from the main party area. We see her lifted above their heads, gasping for air. The stagecraft, the detail of the scene is breathtaking. Everyone has a story, right down to the irritatingly cute little girl who goes to sit with Lensky just when Olga is flirting with Onegin.
The youth of Vick's cast makes their folly all the harder to watch. And for once we can appreciate just how unsentimental Tchaikovsky's score is when its natural grace and restraint is respected. Andrew Davis must take the credit for that. Under his impassioned but unhistrionic direction, the London Philharmonic sounds world-class. When the clarinet counterpoint in Lensky's aria truly sounds like the small, still voice of regret inside his head, you know the score is working. The American, Martin Thompson, sings it beautifully with exquisite refinement in the reprise. He is an attractive, sensitive, volatile Lensky, well matched with Louise Winter's spirited, ultimately bewildered, Olga. For once you shed tears for her humiliation.
And then there is the Onegin of Wojciech Drabowicz, who feels nothing, gives nothing, until it is too late. A suave, chilly presence (he doesn't so much walk as glide) and impressive voice - not too many colours, slightly one-dimensional as yet, but enormously effective in this context. In another brilliant theatrical coup, the duel with Lensky is fought beyond the open doors of a large barn. We hear the shot, but don't see who has fallen. When Onegin re-emerges, he slowly advances downstage - alone. He will always be alone. It has never been clearer. Nor has the symmetry of what might have been, and what ultimately is.
Onegin's polite but patronising rebuttal of Tatyana is delivered without once looking at her. They sit on chairs a mile apart, back to back. Grander chairs are in precisely the same place for their final encounter. But then, in another unique insight, Vick has Tatyana seize one hurried, and precious, embrace - their first and last - before dutifully taking her seat, and turning her back on Onegin for ever. The moment is heartbreaking, the economy of gesture devastating. Frankly, you haven't seen the opera until you've seen this production.
In rep to 24 July, Glyndebourne, nr Lewes, East Sussex (0273 813813)
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