REVIEW: ‘Onegin’ at Opera Holland Park by Theodora Clarke
The new production of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin at Holland Park Opera is both hauntingly beautiful and visually striking. The opera has become a perennial favourite in Britain with the Russian composer’s interpretation of Pushkin’s great verse novel being regularly performed. The music has an intense lyrical quality and an emotional score which gives it enduring appeal.
I meet the Director Daniel Slater on High Street Kensington, a short walk from Holland Park. I ask him, what attracted him to Onegin? “I did a production once before in 1993 at Cambridge when I was quite young and inexperienced. I felt it was appropriate to give it another go”.
Tchaikovksy’s music has always proved popular and Onegin is no exception. Slater explains, “Tchaikovsky writes beautiful music which is also very accessible”. As a Director he was also attracted to the story by the strong paired relationships between Onegin and Tatyana, Lensky and Olga. The powerful drama, the strongly delineated characters and beautiful music make Onegin, he suggests, the ‘perfect’ opera.
Slater’s new production of Onegin relocates the world of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky to the twentieth century. The opening set depicts a grand estate which is now dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The stage is littered with broken furniture and a chandelier lies abandoned on the floor. Leslie Travers, the designer, evokes the faded splendor of Imperial Russia which later on is replaced by bright red Communist imagery and portraits of Lenin.
Onegin can create several potential problems for directors. It is set in very specific locations which can be very costly and time-consuming to change with every scene. Another challenge for this production was how to incorporate the ruins of Holland Park House in the staging. Slater explains that the designer was very conscious of the existing structure of the house and was keen to incorporate it into the set. Travers was inspired by the romantic vision of Russia that suggests snowy landscapes and the world of Zhivago.
I query Slater’s motivations for choosing to set the production in such a particular period. He explains how the concept arose from the early, often problematic scene, with peasants. He imagined the scene as the first murmurings of revolt amongst emancipated serfs on the Larina’s estate. In this production Onegin returns to a Russia which has been radically transformed since Lensky’s death. If the first act opens with the first stirrings of revolution, then the following acts are firmly set in Soviet Russia where the action shifts to after the 1917 Revolution. The St Petersburg Ball becomes a Communist Party rally and Tatyana is now married to Gremin, a Red Army general.
Onegin appears early on in this dreamlike production. Daniel Slater explains that he imagined the character as a haunting presence who observes the action unfolding on stage. Unlike other versions, he wanted to allow Onegin more time on stage. Hence, he decided to frame his production as a series of flashbacks; he wanted to set it in the present day where Onegin (Mark stone) and Tatyana (Anna Leese) are remembering their younger selves. “The piece is about regret, missed opportunities, and paths not taken”.
The most outstanding aria of the whole production is the hauntingly beautiful Anna Leese in her Letter song when she pours out her love for Onegin. The opera is Tchaikovsky’s hymn to failed love and missed opportunities. I ask what he thinks explains the popularity of Russian music in the UK? “Russian composers, like Tchaikovsky, wear their heart on their sleeve. They tend to produce large scale dramas with emotional honesty which appeal to audiences. They have the ability to switch from moments of great joy to great sorrow and to honestly express feelings. We wanted to let our cast do that”.
The production highlights the strength of younger singers in the UK. Unlike other interpretations of Onegin, Slater chose not to cast a more mature Tatyana. Instead he selected Anna Leeson, who portrays her as a young girl. Similar to Garsington, Holland Park Opera is also supporting young British talent. This is important, not only to showcase future talent, but also forms an essential part of the strategy to bring in younger audiences.
The night I attended to watch the audience was full of traditional opera attendees. Slater is keen however to widen access to younger audiences. As a one-off the opera decided to offer tickets for only five pounds to fill the house. Much like the National Theatre’s Travelex sponsored tickets, offering reduced prices like this, has also proved a success at Holland Park. Slater remarks that a largely new demographic attended Onegin with a number of younger people in their twenties and thirties. How does he believe that opera can attract new audiences? “We need to find ways to tell a story which addresses their concerns and makes it relevant to them. Onegin is a story focused on a sense of regret with universal themes. The audience can therefore connect with that world.”
Despite the production’s run clashing with the Olympics in London, the show has been full almost every night. Onegin is a good example of an opera that can appeal to both new and established opera audiences and which showcases the future stars of British opera. Opera Holland Park provides an ideal summer evening out in London.
Opera Holland Park, London W8
Box office: 0300-999-1000
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
July 13, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 31, August 2, 4 at 7.30pm
First performed at the Maly Theatre, Moscow on March 29 1879
Libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky and the composer, with his brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, after the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin
Sung in Russian with English surtitles