Eugene Onegin at Christmas is a beautifully evocative coupling – wintry, pallid, moody and intense. I’m not saying the score has been liberally sprinkled with cinnamon, but you get the picture. Kasper Holten’s production, which received a critical hand-bagging when first staged, appears to be just a few changes away from something altogether more significant, but it was a night of triumph for a trio of outstanding singers and some exceptional playing from the orchestra of The Royal Opera under the expert direction of Semyon Bychkov.
It’s an indulgent score underpinned by a taught dramatic narrative that in the wrong hands can seem more like Barbara Cartland than Pushkin, but with some interesting touches from Holten the whole performance delivered something more than mere authenticity.
The principals were exceptional by any standards. Primus inter pares, the silver fox himself, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, was a revelation, wielding his opulent baritone deftly. Initially there was a small beat evident within the voice, but this ironed itself out as the evening progressed. Only at the very top did he betray any audible vocal strain, but it’s a luxurious voice with a rich and penetrating middle register. One never expected to hear him in such opulent vocal estate following his recent battle with cancer; the assumption being that such an ordeal would take its toll on his voice. Instead, he sounded lustrous and fully in command of that fabulous technique. He has been singing professionally now for 26 years at the very highest standard and not once have I heard him put in a performance that was unsatisfactory. Unsuitable yes, but unsatisfactory no. Tonight he was the perfect blend of regret at a life misspent and wasted, reconciling poor judgement with the dawning realisation that he has missed his opportunity to have the life he wanted with the love he once spurned so cruelly. He embodied fiery temperament with a fatalistic outlook which danced precariously on the edge of arrogance. He was never less than magnetic, both in presence and in voice.
Nicole Car, who made her ROH debut earlier this year as Micaëla, was magnificent at Tatyana. It’s a sumptuous young, fresh lyric soprano with a slight edge that gives her acuti a delicious pointedness. A glorious instrument that one could easily imagine hearing in the gentler Strauss, bel canto and lighter Verdi and Puccini. She would make a stunning Liù, spinning acres of golden sound. As Tatyana she was everything one could wish to hear and see. The tormented love-sick young woman, spurned and then pursued by the tortured Onegin, was communicated with all the burning anguish of teenage love in a manner so palpable that for once the voice and character matched!
Michael Fabiano had one hell of a house debut. What a gloriously rich and incredibly virile voice. There was plenty of squillo on display, burnished golden tone and clarion power, which led to the most exciting tenor debut at The Royal Opera in many a year. A would-be Corelli, the comparison is not inappropriate for once. This is a powerful yet beautifully controlled stentorian tenor, where grace and perfection of execution sit hand in hand with blazing trumpet-like high notes. The audience delivered him the biggest ovation of the night and rightly so. That, however, is for the sheer aural pleasure of hearing such a magnificent voice very much entering its prime, not because it was right for the role. He sang all the notes with nonchalant ease, acted with commitment, but not the fervent youthful ardour that embroils rejection with despair. The timbre and diction is so Italianate that the idiom was deprived of clarity of communication. But I am being picky. I would listen to this man sing the telephone directory and be obscenely happy. Bravo.
Ferruccio Furlanetto, a real veteran of the opera stage imbued his Prince Gremin with that treacly black bass that he still commands so well. Yes, sustained notes can flap into a wobble, but what of it? He commands the stage with a regal voice that echoes with authority and power. His silent departure from witnessing Tatyana’s admission of love to Onegin was full of gravitas that equalled the noble bearing of his character. One of the more successful images of Holten’s production.
Diana Montague‘s Madame Larina was tired and worn sounding. She’s been around the block a bit in this role and it shows. Charismatically she is the equal of the role but the voice is now too blowsy for these ears. Oksana Volkova’s Olga was just coquettish enough to hold our attention, marrying enough faux sincerity to her character’s winsome floozy. Vocally, her voice lacked the kind of distinction to form any lasting impression, but this is hardly the role to judge what kind of singer she may be. The remainder of the cast was ably taken, with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Monsieur Triquet a delightful turn with that spidery Gallic voice dancing perilously around his solo.
Bychkov worked the orchestra to deliver some utterly exquisite moments, which made the performance flow with a beautiful dynamism. If I had one small criticism, it is that the crescendos could have been more arch, sharper and crisper. This is my personal preference, but their rounded musical phrasing made for a luxurious evening. The chorus too were on exceptionally fine form, clearing the cobwebs away from the crevices of the opera house as they rattled the rafters.
I missed Holten’s initial outing of this production in 2013, so I’m unaware of what has been tinkered with since its initial inception, but the sense of outrage and opprobrium heaped on him from some of the critics seemed rather heavy-handed. I think we are all guilty of being too reactionary at times. Some of us feel that we are the guardians of the sacred flame whilst others merely append their coat-tails to the latest bandwagon, joining in the merry dance of the perceived critical consensus. As for me, I found much to enjoy. The sets were handsome and could just as easily be giving a nod to the Scandic elite as it does to the Russian. His decision to cast dancer doubles for the protagonists was initially wearisome, but eventually delivered that externalisation of feeling that in my opinion lifted the performance to another level. Far from ultimately finding it distracting, the exceptional dancers provided an emotive demonstration of the inner turmoil experienced by Onegin et al. My fear that we would end up with unwritten ensembles was not realised, as it was easy enough to distinguish between the “real” and the internal. His vision was clear and economical. I missed a sense of angst and the decision to leave Lensky’s body in situ following his death was incredibly irksome, but it was a fine and interesting dramatic conception.
Eugene Onegin is an opera one can never tire of hearing. In its own way it is a little piece of perfection. There are no longeurs, the drama is communicated with admirable clarity and the music is Tchaikovsky at his very best. The performances from Hvorostovsky, Car and Fabiano are compelling reasons to see and witness some magnificent singing in an opera that never fails to delight.
(Photos : Bill Cooper)