Let’s get the production out of the way first and move on to the plus points of this revival of James Macdonald’s 2004 take on Tchaikovsky’s great opera. Yes, the story telling is clear and there is no modish attempt to make great contemporary statements that damage so many productions when directors’ imaginings go to their heads. Rather, this is Tchaikovsky’s exquisite working of Pushkin told, if anything, in a rather too basic, straightforward way. It shows little dramatic or choreographic flair but, thankfully, does allow the characters to show their abilities to convey personalities and emotions through their own acting and singing skills and craft.
So no great problem with this, except combined with the bland set designs from Tobias Hoheisel and (yet again) we may as well have had a semi-staged concert performance. It some ways, in an open stage without cramping the chorus (resulting in at least one dancing collision), not so great sight lines and dreary scenery that looked rather unsubstantial, it would have been better. With the set offering so little one did also wonder why so many curtain drops for scene changes that destroyed the moment for little gain. Thank goodness one set design that is not unpleasant is that for Tatyana’s bedroom. I am sure the use of windows (Tatyana’s bedroom/ the final scene) and openings (countryside into house, the duel etc.) make sense but add little to assist the audience.
Enough of that.
Nicholas Lester, Miklós Sebestyén and Natalya Romaniw
With the exception of a very fine Miklós Sebestyén as a suitably battle scarred, eye-patch wearing, aging but rock solid, Prince Gremin, who is the foil to the young, pompous and frankly silly Eugene Onegin, the stars of the cast are the female singers.
There is nothing particularly wrong with either Nicholas Lester as Onegin and Jason Bridges as Lensky. The former is vocally secure and appealing while the latter sings the idyllic young poet with grace and sincerity, particularly his tender singing of his heart-wrenching doomed aria. However, neither manage to grab you by the emotional throat or drag you into their characters. It is, however, good that our Lensky does not grandstand the duel aria and shows restraint and introspection. Let us just say that in that duel scene the spark didn’t happen.
Jason Bridges and Nicholas Lester
Nicholas Lester and Natalya Romaniw
Costumes do not help, particularly for Onegin who looks like a lanky undertaker. When the costume department gives him a long wig and stylish facial hair, souvenirs of his world travels, he reverts to looking foppish he seems to have taken the form of his friend who he has killed in the duel. In contrast, the costumes for the chorus and the formal scenes were glorious and would have been magnificent if places in another setting. (Scrap this and bring back Andrei Serban’s masterly production?
Natalya Romaniw and Nicholas Lester
The WNO Chorus
While Lester shone in WNO’s Barber of Seville, here this Onegin is if anything too sympathetic, too gentle, in his rejection of Tatyana’s advances which undermines his Road to Damascus-like transformation. He needs to be as cold as his demeanor suggests for his collapse into an emotional abyss at the conclusion to be totally effective.
Liuba Sokolova, Claudia Huckle and Camilla Roberts
Jason Bridges and Claudia Huckle
The most enjoyable performance are from the women who make the opera plausible, dramatically and vocally worthwhile. I have often felt the opera should be called Tatyana and never more so than in this production with the Swansea-born soprano Natalya Romaniw taking the demanding role and giving a lovely performance as a now noteworthy singer-actress. She is utter believable as the young country girl lost in the world of novels and romances, vulnerable to the seemingly sophisticated ennui of Onegin and completely taken over by emotions and hormones. Equally convincing is her later total restraint and hidden passions when married for position, wealth and security (both material and emotional) she again encounters Onegin. Already evident when she represented Wales in Cardiff Singer of the World, reaching the Song Prize final, Natalya (who has Ukrainian roots) has developed a light demerara lower register, mellifluous and robust when required and rich in dramatic interpretation and, required here in spades, security and stamina. Plus she really can act.
Claudia Huckle and Natalya Romaniw
Claudia Huckle sings a pretty and flighty Olga and is well paired to her more restrained, bookish sister. Camilla Roberts commands our attention as their long-suffering mother who musically and dramatically charmingly sets the scene for the tragedy that is to unfold and then tries without success to steer her children away from the double disaster that unfolds – Olga disappears from our story altogether. The pleasant surprise is the lovely singing from Liuba Sokolova as the girls’ nanny (and Tatyana’s confidante) Filipyevna. It is the two older women who represent two social sides of domestic Mother Russia in the rural backwaters away from courtly, contrived and, ultimately doomed, St Petersburg.
Tchaikovsky’s music is one of opera’s greatest gifts, the vocal writing allows the WNO chorus to thrill us and orchestra to seduce us, with Latvian conductor Ainārs Rubiķis at the helm.
Further performances at WMC on October 6, 13. Touring to Southampton (October 18), Llandudno (October 25), Birmingham (November 3), Liverpool (November 9), Bristol (November 15) and Oxford (November 26, 30).
Images: Betina Skovbro
WNO’s Khovanshchina review:
Natalya Romaniw: My journey from Welsh National Youth Opera to Welsh National Opera:
What makes Arts Scene in Wales unique?