I have written a few reviews of Scottish Opera productions, and they are more often than not along the lines of “I may not know a lot about opera, but here’s what I liked”. With their latest opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, I at least can claim to know the source material, Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 ‘verse novel’ of the same name, which is arguably (and I will argue it) one of the greatest treatise on the nature of love ever written.
This makes it the perfect story for opera, something which Tchaikovsky clearly understood. He was nicknamed ‘the little Pushkin’ as a child by his governess, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he felt an affinity with this Russian writer in particular, but, with its themes of love, regret, vanity, obsession, selfishness, the passing of time and youth, duty, ennui, and passion vs convention, it is perhaps more suitable for realists rather than romantics.
From the beginning it is clear that this is going to be a spectacular evening. As the curtain rose the stage looked like a painting – wonderfully lit, with a subtle palate of muted colours giving the sense of a room which has seen better days – a faded grandeur. It’s an epic and striking opening which is confirmed with the titular Onegin’s entrance on horseback, a very real and beautiful animal whose performance will live long in the memory (and meant at least one cast member will have excellent roses this year).
The costume and scenery are reminiscent of the BBC’s recent adaptation of War & Peace, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of early 19th century Russia which will be familiar to those who have read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev, or have seen Woody Allen’s spoof of their literature, Love & Death.
Key to this is the use of light, and shadow, which helps change the tone and atmosphere. The opening of huge windows lets in the light of the day which subtly changes depending on the hour, candlelight adds ambience to a darkened room, long shadows are cast around the stage marking the passing of time as well as adding to an individual’s character. In the background, a moving tableau of the ‘chorus’ can be seen intermittently as workers, party-goers, diners, and gossiping hordes – ominous, living, shadows.
This being Tchaikovsky, ballet is as integral to the performance as the libretto, and it includes formal and classical forms as well as more contemporary and sensual dances as a worker presents the last wheat sheaf of the harvest, or when two lovers break into the house for a midnight assignation. These interludes between the singing only add to the atmosphere and texture of what unfolds on stage.
None of this would mean much if the performances didn’t match the setting. The central characters of Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, while more than ably supported by the rest of the cast, are superb as the would-be-lovers who both have to go through striking changes of character and sensibilities. The former moves from an arrogant, patronising, peacocking and proud young man whose very nature means he brings about tragedy, to a more understated and self-reflective gentle man who realises too late all that he has lost.
Tatyana has to come to terms not only with unrequited love, but the humiliation which accompanies the patronising lecture on morals she receives from the object of her desire. It is difficult to imagine many things worse. When they meet later in life, while she still has strong feelings for Onegin, despite it all, she now has other things to consider – the freedom and the primary concerns of youth superceded if not forgotten. Mention must also be made of Rosy Sanders as Old Tatyana who is a mute constant, observing these key events in her life from the sidelines. It is a performance of great subtlety and feeling which helps connect the audience with the production.
Eugene Onegin is a story as old as love itself, and is as heartbreaking on stage as it is on the page. Scottish Opera have taken one of Tchaikovsky’s great works and given it the respectful treatment it deserves. If you get the chance to see this production I urge you to do so. It’s quite breathtaking in scope and scale, performed with great style and verve, and is a testament to the talents of everyone involved. I don’t know much about opera, but I know what I like, and I loved Eugene Onegin.
Eugene Onegin is at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from 29th April – 5th May before it moves to Aberdeen (10th – 12th May), Inverness (15th – 19th May), Edinburgh (23rd – 31st May) before heading to Belfast in June (28 – 30th).
Here’s a slideshow with images from the production: