Eugene Onegin towers over the Russian literature of the 19th century, and Tchaikovsky’s decision to create an opera based on a text which is still widely read (and regularly re-read) by Russians today was highly audacious. It is a sign of Tchaikovsky’s brilliance that the Opera, rather than the novel in verse it was based on, has emerged as the way in which, outside Russia at least, most people know this story, and the name Onegin.
But the work has been performed relatively rarely here in Scotland, last performed by Scottish Opera in 1993, and as a Russian speaker, and with a native Russian accompanying me to this performance, our expectations were high. Those high expectations were not disappointed. Eugene Onegin was a ravishing, gorgeous and deeply moving experience from start to finish.
Scottish Opera’s production has three striking qualities – firstly the staging and design, which is stark and simple but stunningly effective. Secondly, the quality of the vocal performances, with the Russian language coming through strong and clear, and lastly the high quality of the musical accompaniment from the orchestra.
The result of this happy trinity is a truly beautiful sight and sound, and the pathos of this timeless story emerges strongly from the whole. This is a deeply emotional story, full of drama and nostalgia, and told in a stark, effective visual style, with the focus on the performances enhanced by the simplicity of the visual setting.
This is not to say that there is not subtlety or a lack of imagination is the staging and design – it is just that everything is done so simply, and so well.
With a change of lighting, which is wonderfully controlled throughout, we suddenly see a figure appear on a real, live horse, or catch an erotic glimpse of Onegin’s backside as he bathes. Silhouettes of carousing dancers or a hunting party, or half-visible faces of a watching ball crowd are all artfully controlled tableaus that help to focus the eye and the mind on the main action, and echo some of the elements of the original Pushkin poetry.
At times, the scene in front of you echoes a Rubens painting, and there is a flowing poetry to all of the movement, with the passage of time and the ache for what might have been subtly enhanced by the silent, lone figure of Old Tatyana observing all of the action and registering her emotional reactions.
And the visions which seemed at first unreal behind this veil become flesh and blood and very real – a great big bloody horse does emerge onto the stage, vaulting in right through a window, and on the opening night, it makes its bold entrance and then shits on the stage lavishly, as if on cue. But of course, the man who led the horse onto the stage has a bucket and shovel right to hand, and the juvenile titters of the audience subside quickly as the story moves on.
The vocal performances from the leads to the chorus were all quite superb, but the Glasgow opening night’s audience rightly recognised the outstanding vocal performance of the evening by acknowledging Peter Auty in the role of Lensky with especially hearty applause. Onegin and Tatyana’s emotional and beautiful final duet drew out more than a few lumps in the throat among the audience, and I saw a few damp eyes being surreptitiously wiped.
Onegin is a classic, and it is given a fresh breath of life with this creatively assured production, which excels in every way and leaves its audience thoroughly enriched. This is a highly polished gem – it sparkles in every way.
★★★★★ 5 Stars
Theatre Royal Glasgow
27 Apr | 29 Apr 3pm | 3 • 5 May 7.15pm
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen
10 • 12 May 7.15pm
Eden Court, Inverness
15 • 17 • 19 May 7.15pm
Festival Theatre Edinburgh
23 • 26 • 29 • 31 May 7.15pm
Grand Opera House Belfast
28 • 30 Jun 7.15pm