Tuesday 19 February 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal, or, On Discipline and Inspirational Conducting (or the Lack Thereof)

Setting out for this performance I was bracing myself for a long evening. My parents saw the show earlier in the run and were sufficiently unimpressed to advise me to get rid of my ticket. Contrary to my expectations, however, I found quite a lot to enjoy.

First off, though, it must be admitted that there is one big problem, and he's standing on the podium. I have heard glowing reports from my brother about Robin Ticciati's work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and from my parents of his Mozart at Glyndebourne. Unfortunately he is on this evidence not a Tchaikovsky man. In the long first half, in particular, things plodded badly such that one had that terrible feeling at times that the cast might as well have been singing about the contents of their sandwiches. On one or two occasions Ticciati had a bizarre burst of speed (such as in the first big chorus number) – this wasn't much better. Things did improve after the interval, but I think a glass of wine may have assisted.

Much of the singing is also not entirely perfect. The best performance vocally was Peter Rose's magnificent Prince Gremin. It wasn't until I got home that I was able to check who was taking the role and I was somewhat astonished. I've heard him several times and have never been especially impressed, but tonight his performance was beautifully sung and very moving. I didn't find either Krassimira Stoyanova's Tatyana or Simon Keenlyside's Onegin entirely satisfactory. Stoyanova, especially in the first half, just sounded a bit too contained and somehow not the epitome of youthful exuberance. Keenlyside in a number of places disappeared under the orchestra. But again both were better after the interval, and never less than solid. Pavol Breslik's Lensky gave a fine account of his pre-duel aria. The rest of the singing was solid.

And so we come to Kasper Holten's production, which has not been favourably received. It was here that I was quite surprised. There are a number of moments which suggest that Holten knows what he is doing. He has what I think of as a painter's eye for a good stage picture – most in evidence in a couple of full chorus scenes – after the harvesting in Scene 1 and in the opening moments of the ball in Scene 6. He also has what I think could have been a really compelling central idea – that is that the two leads are reliving the experiences that led them to the misery of the ending and hence are doubled. This is really compelling in the build up to the fatal shot in the duel when Onegin yearns to stop his younger self from pulling the trigger. In short I do think there's real potential and this certainly wasn't a staging that made me want to strangle the director.

But the big problem with it I decided as the evening went on is that Holten lacks discipline. The idea of the doubles isn't directed tightly enough so that elsewhere it's either ineffective (the Letter Scene) or downright silly – what on earth Tatyana's double was doing in an elevated cupboard during Scene 4 I could not tell you. That lack of discipline is more broadly in evidence in a general fussiness and clutter – there's far too much opening and closing of doors, ripping up of books, not to mention mistakenly leaving poor dead Lensky stranded centre stage for two scenes.

But all that said, I came away feeling that the promise transcended the failings. And, unlike at Medea, during the second half I was moved by the plight of the characters. With the proviso of a little more self-control (and a lot less Ticciati in this repertoire at least) I remain optimistic about seeing more of Holten the director at Covent Garden.

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