Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Glyndebourne, Sussex, 12th June 2014 4 stars

OneginTwenty years ago director Graham Vick caused a minor sensation with his ground-breaking new production of Eugene Onegin in the brand new Glyndebourne Opera House. Vick gave us bare, sometimes bleak stage vistas, bathed in pastel colours, interspersed with sudden bursts of interior warmth--notably in the fourth (of seven) lyrical scenes, the party at Madame Larina's house for Tatiana's name day. He gave us an unforgettable new moment in the opera, too--the moment when a fevered Tatiana, overwrought with anticipation as to how her passionate love letter will be received by Onegin, picks up her washbowl and drenches herself in its cold contents! Vick had other ideas too: full length curtains opened and closed from side to side as scene followed scene: the overall effect was clever, innovative, and very much in keeping with the 'snapshot' structure of the work. Elena Prokina made a huge impression as Tatiana (I remember the audience excitement as we all streamed out) and the piece was lovingly conducted by Andrew (now Sir Andrew) Davis.

Vick's Onegin was last revived in 2008, under Vladimir Jurowski, who gave us an almost chamber music reading of the score, beautifully controlled and articulated--a civilised, sophisticated delight. If it lacked anything, however, it lacked perhaps just a little bit of raw passion.

For the 2014 revival, that is the last thing that anyone could claim. I am not sure that I have ever heard an Onegin in the opera house driven with the fire, urgency and colour of sound as the London Philharmonic Orchestra managed to produce for young conductor Omer Meir Wellber, who is making his Glyndebourne debut. Tempi were brisk, borderline fast, but tightly-controlled. The sound was sumptuous, with incisive, percussive string playing and gloriously full-blooded woodwind and brass. This Onegin was passionate and exciting. It made for a wonderful return visit to a production I thought I knew so well--and the chorus and principals responded to Wellber's account of the score by giving their all. The result was a great deal of magnificent music-making.

I shall start, however, with my minor reservation about the performance: the under-characterisation of the title role (only marginally so, but it makes a difference), by Andrei Bondarenko. Bondarenko has a mellifluous voice and the middle range of his baritone is always a pleasure to listen to: he is also musically very aware, and phrases his part intelligently. But it was only in the final scene that he really came to life, suddenly opening up to use his fine voice as real characterisation of the role demands. Onegin is a difficult role to project--it is so easy to make his boredom and cynicism unattractive and uninteresting to the audience. I regard the performance that I attended as finely sung, but still work in progress.

His friend Lensky was sung with real fire and colour by Edgaras Montvidas however, and this was a characterisation that worked. As so often, the outcome of the duel scene was not the one the audience would have voted for! Montvidas seemed to like Wellber's tempi, and responded with a fine account of the role. A strong performance.

Their would-be partners, Olga and Tatiana, were a well-contrasted pair of sisters. I found the voice of Ekaterina Sergeeva as Olga absolutely wonderful in the role: she has a thrilling mezzo sound, which she projected brilliantly, especially in the lower register, and she acted the part of the flighty, party-loving animal extremely well. As Tatiana, Ekaterina Scherbachenko looked magnificent: withdrawn, slightly brooding, elegant and with a nicely-rounded soprano sound, pure and largely free of vibrato except at the extremities. She sang the letter scene in slightly too controlled and artful fashion for my personal taste, and I missed the true pianissimo that can make one's heart jump as she sings that haunting descending scale: but overall it was a lovely performance, which grew even stronger in the final scene. Scherbachenko has it in her to make Tatiana her signature role, and I should love to hear her sing it again in a couple of years.

Both Diana Montague as Madame Larina and Irina Tchistjakova as Tatiana's Nurse were solid, dependable, and nicely characterised. Francois Piolino sang Monsieur Triquet beautifully and underplayed the part, to great advantage: the return of Vick to Glyndebourne to re-rehearse this revival clearly paid huge dividends in the party scene, as elsewhere throughout the production. Finally, the big bonus in the final scene was a splendidly sung Gremin by Taras Shtonda: his great 'Tatiana' aria sounding fresh, sonorous, superbly well articulated and totally convincing. Shtonda set the musical seal on a great evening at Glyndebourne.

I thought I knew the Onegin score almost as well as that of any other opera. The huge excitement of this revival was not to open my eyes to any new dramatic revelations, but to open my ears to so many orchestral details that I heard as if, in some cases, for the first time. So in sum, a vintage revival of a classic production, with singing and playing of the highest order overall and an account of Tchaikovsky's score that will live with me for a long time.

By Michael Reynolds

Photos: Richard Hubert Smith