Onegin's outburst comes during the ball at St Petersburg. The staging is spectacular, with columns towering over the stage, lit to resemble gold and marble. It's glorious. So why isn't Onegin impressed? If Deborah Warner had asked that question, this production might have come to life. Socially, Onegin's better connected than the Larin family, and much loved. Tatyana's only the latest in a long line of admirers, of all kinds. But he chooses deliberately to be an outsider. Tatyana lives in book-filled fantasy, unlike her nurse for whom love is an irrelevant concept. She falls for him because he's dangerous. Writing that letter was traumatic, because it was shockingly, unlady-like by the conventions of the time. Yet Onegin doesn't reject her as a person, but because he's not into the status games that marriage entails. What is he really after? Is he a symbol of the artistic soul?
Psychologically, there are many levels in this opera, but this production is more concerned with surface appearances. The First Act misses altogether the clues to Tatyana's fertile imagination that the garden represents. Maybe this set portrays her mind, but it's a shambles, and there's nothing else to support that take on Tatyana's personality. It's a pity as this act should establish why Onegin cares about Tatyana. Like the garden, she stands for the fertility of Russian tradition. Purity, not ostentation. (for more explanation, please see the comments below) But we get the trademark Warner busy crowd, where supernumeraries wander about contributing nothing but attention deficit. At least when the crowd are dancing, they serve a purpose.
The visual glory of this production will make it it a huge success, particularly for audiences who like the very trappings of status Onegin so clearly rejects. (For more on Met values please see here). On one level, the opera supports a regressive interpretation, since Onegin realizes how empty his life is without love. Tatyana sticks with her husband, apparently choosing status over all else. But I've often wondered what the next act might have been. Quite possibly, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky had ideas on the resolution, but in Tsarist times, the message might have had them banned. So perhaps Warner's retreat into appearances has a point, since even now, it isn't safe to think of Onegin questioning social mores.
Extremely good performances in the minor roles. Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Filippyevna, for example, singing well and acting by instinct. Adrian Thompson, David Stout and Brindley Sherratt as Triquet, Zaretsky and Prince Gremin respectively, making their parts more than vignettes. Edward Gardner's conducting, however, was more in line with Warner's glossy surfaces. The orchestra played correctly, even elegantly, but the pungent Slavic soul in this music was smoothed over. This Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin will be a huge success, especially at the Met. It's going to sell and sell, and will be around for the next 20 years. In revival, the direction might be tightened up, and singers with less genteel personalities might be allowed more freedom (witness Wyn-Rogers' individuality). So even if you don't catch it at the ENO this season, there will be many more chances in years to come.
Photo credits : Neil Libbert, courtesy ENO (detals embedded)