Scottish Opera performs Eugene Onegin at The Festival Theatre Edinburgh this week , and in doing so, brings together two giants of Russian Arts – Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky (composer and organiser of the libretto) and Alexander Pushkin (writer of the original novel). Eugene Onegin is often quoted as being Russia’s favourite novel and that says much about the psyche of the Russian nation itself. The fact that the novel evokes a whole world of Imperialist Russia now long swept away by violent revolution adds today an even more tragic element to this work. No art form does tragic drama better than opera and no nation seems to write tragic stories better than Russia, so putting the two together will always create something special.
At its heart, this is the story of two very different sisters and, for one of them, a young girl’s love-sick crush on a handsome stranger who at the time rebukes her for her fantasies. As our story progresses (well scene selections from, we are not being told this story in complete linear time), petty jealousies and perceived personal insults lead to a deadly duel between two old friends and finally an almost biblical re-union of our main characters where the roles of power are completely reversed. Doomed love taking second place over duty by marriage in the end rules the day. England may have Jane Austen books with their almost optimistic views on young love, but this is the world of Russian novels and opera, and in classic form, no one ends their stories happily here.
Set and Costume Designer Annemarie Woods has done an excellent job here of creating an atmospheric world for our story to unfold upon. This is not the visual opulence you might expect of the period, but darker and more muted colours that fit well our dark tale, and at times create a feeling of some lost dream world. Careful lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli adds perfectly to the overall feel of this work too.
Duty over love is a recurring theme in this story and the seeds of it are firmly planted in our early scenes when our sisters Tatyana (Natalya Romaniw) and Olga (Sioned Gwen Davies) are overheard singing love songs by their mother Madame Larina (Alison Kettlewell) and nurse Filipyevna (Anne-Marie Owens). Both our older women know only too well that the real world is not one of Tatyana’s romantic novels. Very soon, the introduction to our story of old family friend (and soon to be married to Olga) Lensky (Peter Auty) and his friend, our titular protagonist Eugene Onegin (Samuel Dale Johnson) changes everything for everyone as our story begins to unfold. Central to everything though is one thing – the young Tatyana’s love letter to Eugene Onegin.
Eugene Onegin is very much here a woman’s story and their conversations take up a lot of the narrative dialogue. Tchaikovsky obviously recognised this very early on, and the music clearly reflects very different characters not only in musical composition, but the different vocal ranges of our very different women. Tchaikovsky also plays here with not matching the male voices to their female counterparts in their most obvious matches. There is harmony and discordance all through Pushkin’s story, and this is reflected so carefully in the music and the performers by Tchaikovsky.
All of our female leads give fine performances here and the differences between our two sisters, Olga and Tatyana, is clearly reflected in their music. Sioned Gwen Davies is a very good Olga providing a stark contrast to her sister, but of course, it is the relationship between Tatyana and Eugene that is the central one here. Anyone performing the role of Tatyana has to be able to give us both aspects of this character – the young and at times childishly naïve young lovelorn girl and the later confident and self-assured woman of status and power. Natalya Romaniw gives us both with very powerful and very different performances (again Tchaikovsky clearly understanding the changes that have taken place in her life) that gained quite rightly deserved applause from the audience.
Samuel Dale Johnson as Eugene Onegin and Peter Auty as Lensky are both a pleasure to watch and hear in their respective roles, but for me, Graeme Broadbent as Prince Gremin steals the scene that he is in with his very grand portrayal of his character as he somehow brings a sense of weight and importance to it.
This production has a few delightful twists to it though as our story is re-imagined from different viewpoints. One is the addition of ballet to the story line. With specially choreographed sequences from Ashley Page and performances of the role being shared between Polina Guseva (tonight) and Eve Mutso, all three great arts – writing, ballet and opera are drawn together. Polina Guseva was so good in her dance tonight, but I have to admit that I had hoped to see Eve Mutso perform this role here as Eve was always one of my favourite dancers from her time as one of Scottish Ballet’s principal dancers.
A large part of the atmosphere of this production though goes to a non singing role, and here, Rosy Sanders uses nothing but body movement and stage presence to very atmospheric and emotional effect. What is her role? Well I am not telling you that as it provides a perspective to this story that gives a very subtle twist that for me changes everything to great dramatic effect (I hope other reviewers do not give it away).
Eugene Onegin 2018 (Director Oliver Mears and conductor Stuart Stratford) is another success that Scottish Opera can now add to their long list of previous achievements.
Nothing to do with this production, but still running with the theme of Imperial Russia (Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 meant this was the only world he knew), this year, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of The Russian Royal Family. Literally only placed on public view at The National Gallery of Scotland at The Mound amongst paintings of The French Impressionists and other painters of the period is a portrait of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicolas II. This fine painting is one of the very few portraits of a Russian Tsar on public display anywhere in the UK and it has been provided to the gallery on loan from The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Trust. Tsar Nicolas II of Russia was Colonel–in-Chief of the regiment. I mention this because, although the world of Imperial Russia may be now nothing more than a historic memory, Scotland has some very strong historical ties to it.
Review by Tom King