James Macdonald’s production of Eugene Onegin impresses for its directness and consistency, whilst also offering a broader slant upon the drama. In terms of costume it is faithful to the era in which Tchaikovsky composed, with plenty of colour and activity in the scenes with the farm workers in Act One/scene one and Tatyana’s name-day in Act Two. The more formal and sober attire of the guests at Prince Gremin’s ball some years later at the opening of Act Three sets off the previous scenes well, marking the elevation of Tatyana to a higher, aristocratic rank in society, though also suggesting the suppression of her emotions she had come to experience and understand over the course of the previous two Acts (though cruelly rejected by Onegin). In the midst of this, Onegin himself is a striking presence, dressed in black (except for his white wing-collar shirt, and white gloves at the ball) manifesting outwardly his sombre, inscrutable character. His dress looks funereal, perhaps implying that he mourns someone or something, and Nicholas Lester’s appearance – with broad forehead and lean, sharply defined facial features, and mutton-chop whiskers – is possibly also intended to resemble Pushkin himself.
That visual spectacle is all set within the plainer context of this production’s design, which draws the audience into the drama and to see it from Tatyana’s perspective. A bare white wall largely encloses the front half of the stage, but comprises an opening towards the back that symbolically offers the hope of an emotional and physical world beyond, but which Tatyana never fully manages to attain. Hence, in Act One’s first scene she sits in the sunlight, reading her book on the lawn and dreaming of love, but the garden is fenced in; her room in the next scene fits within the liminal space of that opening, but the windows are shut; and the revelries for her name-day tantalisingly take place over and in front of that boundary, not proceeding much beyond it. The set’s arrangement is less relevant for the duel scene, but it is a dramatically striking moment when Onegin stands in the snowy landscape in the space further back, facing Lensky downstage who has his back to the audience when he is shot. At the end of Act Three, Onegin intrudes into Tatyana’s world again, but does not succeed in dislodging her from it.
Ainārs Rubiķis conducts an account that is translucent but imbued with feeling, carefully tracing the course of Tatyana’s psychological development from her tentative, dreamy mood at the very opening, and increasing in passionate ardour and urgency through the orchestral introductions to the subsequent scenes. The orchestra is vivid and alert for the Polonaise at the opening of Act Three, though at other times succeeding in bringing out a Mozartean clarity and playfulness in the music, such as in Act One when Tatyana persuades Filipyevna to deliver her letter.
Natalya Romaniw grows in stature as Tatyana, initially sounding fragile and slight, but gaining in confidence and feeling as the ‘Letter Scene’ proceeds. Claudia Huckle as Olga is careful not to upstage her sister, as also Camilla Roberts as their mother, Madame Larina, who is occasionally obscured by the orchestra. Liuba Sokolova is a characterful Filipyevna, singing as though with vicarious yearning on behalf of Tatyana as the latter comes to terms with what she feels on having met Onegin for the first time.
Lester is as vocally distinctive as his characterisation of the title role, sounding dark and remote during the first two Acts, but attaining frustration and despair in the final one; his performance underlines rather than explains Onegin’s initially standoffish personality and the equally inexplicable turnaround in his affections for Tatyana. Jason Bridges is an attractively warm-toned Lensky, though still cutting decisively through the louder orchestral passages. Joe Roche stands out for his deliberately mannered, almost comically obsequious, rendition of Monsieur Triquet’s ode in honour of Tatyana, which provides welcome levity during the surrounding melodrama. The integration of music and drama is altogether finely judged, making for a convincing and satisfying reading of this popular opera.