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Monday 18 March 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal Academy of Music

First cast

Second Cast

I attended two evenings of this RAM production of Eugene Onegin because the first night was one of the most superb evenings of opera I have ever witnessed. The second evening was a different cast in the same production and while vocally brilliant, wasn't quite the unbelievable experience of the first night.

Why was the first night so brilliant? There were several reasons. John Ramster's production keeps the piece squarely in Pushkin's and Tchaikovsky's original setting, with costumes and furniture of that time, though the background set is more abstract, comprising a huge "picture frame" aperture through which the sky is visible and an abstracted tree branch which pokes through, connecting the outside and the inside spaces. Lighting is used very effectively to create atmosphere, focus and mood though it might have been braver to use slightly less lurid colours. What is remarkable about the direction though is the attention to detail in every single scene - every character seems to genuinely "live" on stage, acting and interacting with an improvisatory freedom that at every moment is derived from not just the intentions implicit in the libretto, but also (and this is crucial) Tchaikovsky's score. Tchaikovsky's music in this score is almost choreographic in gesture, and the faithfulness and sensitivity with which it was rendered was of a level which it is difficult to fully summarise in words. This is not to say that everything looked preplanned and literally choreographed, but merely that these young singers at every moment were moving in such accord with text and music that it seemed as if the whole thing was extemporised. An extraordinary thing to witness.

And not just Tchaikovsky is served. Another remarkable aspect of this production is how faithful to the peculiar feel of Pushkin's original it is. I had until now assumed that Pushkin's verse novel was one masterpiece, and Tchaikovsky's was a different (albeit related) masterpiece, and that attempts to combine the two were misguided (after all one is a verse novel, the other an opera and so are animated in different spheres and in different ways). This is extremely subjective, but what John Ramster has managed is to incorporate the humour, intimacy, subtlety, intricacy and social astuteness of the Pushkin into the sweeping beauty, concision and heartbreaking intensity of Tchaikovsky's opera whilst never compromising either, or egoistically drawing attention to himself with a "conzept" that is meant to make us understand the drama in a radical new light. He trusts the work and the result is revelatory.

So much for generalities! Ross Ramgobin's Onegin is haughty, reserved and preternaturally calm but not inhuman. The look he gives Madame Larina when she smilingly touches his elbow says it all though. The garden scene is very interestingly played - after slightly light heartedly revealing the letter, Onegin goes over to Tatyana and holds her hand as if it's nothing and suddenly she's the one pulling away. He makes the physical motions of intimacy but the face and emotions remain impassive and reserved: a thrilling complexity to watch and just seems perfect for the character. His transformation into desperate ineffectualness in the final scene and the reversal of power is brilliantly handled - Tatyana recalls the physical motions of Onegin all those years ago and toys with him in a push-pull of intimacy and rejection.

The contrast between the sisters is also superbly characterised where all too often we find a lapse into caricature - "the boisterous one" and "the bookish one". Fiona Mackay is completely unaffected as a joyful, youthful, open hearted, life loving Olga - it seems to me to be so much more difficult to be convincingly happy on stage than sad, so I was particularly struck by her acting. She treats Tatyana as a playful younger sister really would, affectionately mocking character traits but with a profound love and acceptance of their differences. She dances with the peasants in Act I, is amused by Lensky's bullish poetics, and is shown to have already moved on from Lensky at the end of the duel scene - not a judgement, just a simple presentation of character. Tereza Gevorgyan's Tatyana is more sensitive and is pained by things that her sister simply couldn't understand - her actions in the letter scene were once again brilliantly aligned with the score, not just physically, but emotionally too, every compositional flicker finding its expression on the surface. And here was a similarity to Kasper Holten's production at the ROH recently (who I thought made such a hash of this scene): during the beautiful sotto voce section Onegin appears in the background in Tatyana's imagination (staring forward inscrutably a la Mr. Darcy) and at the end of the scene, walks silently to the end of her bed, as Tatyana arches in to fevered, sexually excited dreams. But unlike the Holten version where the thing is consummated on stage in front of us (see link above), the sexual tension remains here because nothing physical has actually occured.

Throughout, the pacing is unerringly adroit, again simply by following the score. I repeatedly got the feeling "Ah, yes! how simple and obvious!". An example: the way the crowd become very gradually more and more aware of the argument in Act II, turning around and forming an arena for the fighting men, all in one perfectly smooth dramatic crescendo just as you'd imagine it might happen in real life. I've just never seen this occur so naturally. Throughout, the use of the chorus is one of the most inspired I've ever seen also - always framing and shaping the action, creating new physical and psychological spaces on stage, with endless details that again suggest life, and never merely "stage business" (cf: the all too practised nervous/happy chatter of the ROH chorus). Stephen Aviss's Lensky isn't a wimp, and seems fully justified in standing up to Onegin's sneering prods - here is a passionate young man, healthily egoistic for a young artist, but not deluded about life. Just as Onegin shoots him in the duel scene, he shakes his head and raises his palms in a gesture of reconciliation - it is Onegin's bloodymindedness, the same bloodymindedness that allowed things to get so far in the first place, that is the cause of his death.

The choreography (by Victoria Newlyn) is superb, maybe the best I've ever seen in a Eugene Onegin. The dances in the three acts wonderfully create the mood and feel of the three social strata, and the movements, gestures and moods are again so closely tied to the score - playful joy and pure physical delight in the Act I peasant scene, flirtatious charm and proper manners from the middle classes in the Waltz of Act II, and chilly elegance and artificial beauty in the Act III palace Polonaise (though wonderfully, in that creeping B section of the dance, we see all the liaisons, frivolities and intrigues that go on in the deserted corridors and behind the closed doors of the palace, when people think no one is looking.)

Other moments that resonate in the mind: Stuart Jackson's amazing french clown Monsieur Triquet, physically dwarfing everyone on stage (wearing an inspired costume which with its enormous pompoms made the sense of scale even more uncanny), and with a brilliante cadenza to top off the song, the first time I've not been bored by this scene; the masqueraders that follow Tatyana like phantoms in the ballroom; A bewigged Lensky serving Onegin a drink at the palace just as Onegin mentions his friend haunting him; Anna Harvey's posture and warmth as Madame Larina, totally convincing as an elegant middle aged woman though she can scarcely have been older than Tatyana in reality; similarly Rozanna Madylus's brilliant little reactions as Filipyevna, yet another generation older, but the physical embodiment is total; the four central woman left in a diagonal across the stage at the close of the Act II ball so we see their final emotions unambiguously without the hubbub of the crowd. Everywhere the action was so riveting, well characterised and brimming with detail that I kept forgetting to look at the surtitles as I just wanted to drink it all in.

Musically there were many good things from the first cast. The main thing to comment is that all of them served the drama with their singing, in accordance with their superb and beautiful acting. No mean feat and in a production as engaging as this, complaining about some aspects of the singing seems like quibbling. Tereza Gevorgyan is perhaps not an obvious choice as Tatyana as the part sits low and it is her ultra intense high register that is the most thrilling region of her voice. The lower reaches of the voice are attractive, but aren't yet the equal of the highs. Still the legato and musicality make her a satisfying singer. Ross Ramgobin's Onegin is well characterised, well sung, and contains many lovely things, but vocally he seemed a little out of his comfort zone, and it was clear he was tiring by the end. His recent "O du mein holder Abendstern" in the John Tomlinson masterclass I attended seemed much more comfortable and finished to me, which is why I suspect that he was not having the most easy night here. Stephen Aviss's Lensky was secure and manful and I could really see him doing this role professionally. Olga is an extremely low lying mezzo part, really not ideal for most young mezzos, but Fiona Mackay did a good job at tackling its extreme tessitura. Anna Harvey's Madame Larina was much better sung in the second night I saw her, with a pleasingly full timbre and comfortable fluency, and Rozanna Madylus was equally good in the alto role of Filipyevna. Young basses are always difficult to appraise because it's a voice type that famously takes a long while to mature, but Nicholas Crawley's Gremin was very nicely sung, his fruity timbre losing stability only on the very low, very long final phrase.

The other cast I saw was quite different - almost all seemed more finished vocally, but equally the intensity and detail in the acting was not quite there for any of them in the same way, and though they were still well above average in this area, the evening as a whole wasn't quite as magical - just a very decent evening of opera. Can't complain too much! Gareth John's Onegin (who I also saw in the John Tom masterclass) was vocally a powerhouse, and he seemed to get stronger and stronger as the evening went on. It's a very warm, beautiful, full sound, even from top to bottom, and surely just about ideal as Onegin - comparable to any professional I've heard. Just as in the John Tom masterclass he has a tendency to lean back slightly whilst singing, which here suited his character, but the silent intensity of Ramgobin's Onegin was not there. Samuel Furness is also brilliant as Lensky, the best I have heard him sing - the technique is now quite excellent - his piano singing very controlled, and his top splendidly ringing and beautiful. There is still hoarseness in the middle voice, but it's no longer there all the time, and if he continues to improve at this rate, he will have a very formidable career. His Lensky was angrier and more physically tense than Aviss's but again, his physical bearing on stage has improved hugely since the last few times I have seen him. Sara Lian Owen's Tatyana is very vocally assured, and again could surely sing this professionally soon, her top of particularly luminous fullness, though the line sometimes became broken up and lumpy in the middle voice. Her committed portrayal of Tatyana was less pained than Gevorgyan's, girlish and smiley in the letter scene, not quite as sensitive dramatically, and unfortunately she didn't seem to be fully addressing Onegin in the final confrontation. Irina Loskova was a slightly more vampish Olga than Mackay but also did her best with the tessitura which remained slightly out of her reach. Thomas Elwin's attractively sung Monsieur Triquet was smaller scale (not just literally) than Stuart Jackson's, and his vision of the role seemed to be quieter and more reserved. Angharad Lyddon revealed a truly wondrous voice as Filipyevna, displaying all the hallmarks of a true contralto: ultra rich chest voice, firm middle registers and an eery, shiny intensity in the top (which starts much lower than where mezzos or sopranos start to sound like their top) though her physical characterisation was not as acute. I've heard her before in a Schubert song evening and though she was billed as a mezzo, I strongly suspected then that she was a true contralto then, and to me this entirely confirmed it. So unusual and satisfying to find such finished singing in such a low voice so young.  Andri Björn Róbertsson's Gremin was exquisitely sung - every phrase loaded with subtleties, almost too much for this role! The colour of the voice is lighter than we expect for Gremin and I imagine he is a bass-baritone rather than pure bass.

The orchestra was serviceable under Jane Glover who amply supported the singers but failed to excite the playing that she was clearly trying to draw out of her young musicians. The biggest draw back was the tentative violins who with their choppy phrasing and lack of commitment left the first act feeling undernourished. There were moments of splendour too however, especially in the later acts, and I was particularly impressed by the cellos whose handful of important tunes, often botched by professionals, were rock solid and very beautiful. The RAM chorus sang and acted thrillingly throughout.

Overall then, the first night was a stunning evening of theatre, with some very fine music making, and the second night was a good evening of theatre, with some superlative music making. If forced to choose I would pick the first because it's so much rarer to witness, but both evenings should have made the all involved and the Royal Academy of Music very proud indeed.

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