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S & H Opera Review

P.I. Tchaikovsky: ‘Eugene Onegin,’ Welsh National Opera at Bristol Hippodrome, 17thApril 2004 (BK)


A four hour Eugene Onegin makes for a restless audience unless it is very special. In this production, director James MacDonald takes Tchaikovsky’s description of his work as ‘seven lyrical scenes’ literally: he inserts substantial pauses between each scene in addition to those between Acts, perhaps to provide the audience with respite from the emotional intensity of plot and score. It’s a strategy that would be risky without exceptional casting and musical direction, which was fortunately the case in this performance, the final one of the current series.

Amanda Roocroft (Tatyana) and Vladimir Moroz (Onegin)

WNO’s new Musical Director Tugan Sokhiev conducted the work with a masterly understanding of its passion and subtlety. Orchestra, chorus and soloists all responded magnificently to provide an authentically Russian reading, aided in no small part by the strong Mariinsky influences provided by Larissa Gergieva’s music coaching and by the fact that Sokhiev himself, Vladimir Moroz (Onegin) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga) all have close connections with the St. Petersburg house.

The sets by Tobias Hoheisel were simple yet effective. An off-set partition mid-stage and equipped with a large cut-out, provided the focus for each of the seven scenes. Simple props within the set represented the exterior of the Larin estate, Tatyana’s bedroom, Tatyana’s Nameday party, the duelling ground and so on. Like many others, I suspect, I was initially at a loss to understand why scene changes took so long for such a minimalist design, before realising that the pauses had a second and more deliberate purpose.

The action is set in Tchaikovsky’s own time, some fifty years later than in the Pushkin narrative on which the opera is based. In part, the time shift was chosen to allow greater freedom for Tobias Hoheisel’s costume designs since techniques for dyeing cloth had apparently developed considerably between the 1820s and 1870s: more vivid yet authentic colours could be used, especially for the women’s gowns and for military uniforms. Additionally however, since there are extraordinary resonances between Tchaikovsky’s own tangled emotional life and those of the unsettled (if not actually disturbed) Onegin, the time shift also underscored the poignancy that the composer found in Pushkin’s story and which propelled him to create his masterpiece.

Director James MacDonald has taken great care to compensate for Tchaikovsky’s condensation of Pushkin’s story by making sure that the narrative is internally consistent. Since Tatyana, the romantically inclined country girl, reads novels in which the heroes are always tall, dark and cynical, MacDonald’s Onegin matches this picture exactly. Unlike every other character in the opera, Onegin is always dressed in black; he is aloof, cold and yet not completely unfeeling as his behaviour towards Tatyana shows when he meets her after receiving her letter. Later, after the shooting of Lensky and his self-imposed exile, Onegin returns to Tatyana and reveals that he has kept her letter all the time; black-suited as ever, his feelings have changed entirely however and he has literally ‘let his hair down’ as a mark of his reform.

In similar fashion, Tatyana and Olga are portrayed as unsophisticated young women, each full of romantic yearning in their different ways. Both are capable of high spirits even though they differ temperamentally and Tatyana having sent her letter to her ‘Mr. Darcy’ throws her clothes around her bedroom ecstatically before going to sleep exhausted. By the time Onegin returns to her however, Tatyana has become the dutiful but still young wife of Prince Gremin who although a good deal older than she, is still an attractive and indeed a noble man. Far from lessening the tensions surrounding Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin though, this device makes it clear that Tatyana has feelings for Gremin that Onegin can never understand; however much he believes himself to have changed.

The singing in this production was almost uniformly excellent in this Bristol performance. Amanda Roocroft’s wonderful soprano was sheer delight and Vladimir Moroz’s baritone came over as another triumph of Russian vocal training, not entirely unreminiscent of the younger Hvorotovsky. Brindley Sherratt made a superb and sonorous Gremin while Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga,) Suzanne Murphy (Mme Larina) and Linda Ormiston (Filipyevna) were all in excellent voice. Robert Tear as M. Triquet sang his cameo role with wily experience and all of the musicianship that has characterised his distinguished career.

A particular attraction of this production was the opportunity to hear Marius Brenciu as Lensky, as anyone capable of winning both of the prizes in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition (as it was called in 2001) would be, naturally enough. His singing in Act Two, scene one, fully lived up to his reputation, showing his voice to be as accurate and exciting as might have been expected. At other times, however, he was less engrossing, seeming to be having problems with accuracy of pitch and lacking subtlety in expression. Perhaps he was having a bad night, as happens to everyone at one time or another, but he is clearly a remarkable singer at his best.

Tugan Sokhiev is a remarkable conductor too. His fast-growing reputation as a musician of exceptional merit was fully justified by this production in which it was self-evident that he is already fitting into Carlo Rizzi’s shoes extremely ably. His next WNO project is a new production of La Traviata in May, an event to which I look forward with keen anticipation.

Bill Kenny

Director: James Macdonald

Conductor: Tugan Sokhiev
Designer: Tobias Hoheisel

Lighting: Andreas Grüter
Stuart Hopps
Music Coach: Larissa Gergieva
Language Coaches: Anastassia Mozina / John Asquith


Amanda Roocroft

Onegin: Vladimir Moroz

Lensky: Marius Brenciu

Olga: Ekaterina Semenchuk

Mme. Larina: Suzanne Murphy
Filipyevna: Linda Ormiston
M. Triquet:
Robert Tear

Prince Gremin: Brindley Sherratt

Captain and Zaretsky: David Soar
Peasant Leader: Philip Lloyd-Evans
Guillot: Philip Lloyd Holtam
WNO Orchestra and Chorus



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