This is an interesting and rewarding show. If you know Eugene Onegin already, the fascination will be to hear Tchaikovsky's score (in an effective orchestral reduction for 14 players by Richard Balcombe) laid bare in its melodic cells and rhythmical components, and thus reveal its intricate, subtle structure: if you do not know it, the interest will be the human dimension and the fates of the main protagonists, effectively told in a good-looking, straightforward production by Bernadette Iglich. Something for everybody then – well, almost. My minor reservations can come later.
But first, the work, and the approach taken to it. There is an increasing tendency in today's opera houses to emphasise the chamber music qualities of Eugene Onegin and to restore to Tchaikovsky's most popular opera score the intimate dynamics of his 'seven lyric scenes after Pushkin'. The process was notable in Glyndebourne's most recent revival of the now-classic Graham Vick production, conducted discreetly and lovingly by Vladimir Jurowski, and now Iford Festival Opera have mounted their own new production in that tiny, magical space in a cloister in a Wiltshire garden that seats a mere 90. It may seem an odd choice of work for the space, but this is Eugene Onegin in close-up: you are part of Madame Larina's household and an intimate witness to everything that goes on. So forget for a moment the vast open spaces, the contiguous estates that stretch out into infinity, the returning peasants who bring in the harvest: this is much more the small-scale human drama of Tatiana and Onegin, Olga and Lensky. As such, it succeeds or fails on the strength of characterisation (musical and dramatic) of its principals, and on the conviction they bring to their roles.
The show takes some time to find its feet and get going. Shorn of the rollicking peasant dances that can be mounted on a full-sized stage, the scene-setting and atmosphere depiction that occupies much of Act 1 (all female voices) seems lacklustre and threadbare at times, and not even the arrival of Onegin and Lensky makes the show come alive – it is all a bit one-paced and monochromatic. But then comes the letter scene, and Tatiana's great aria, and from that moment the opera gathers momentum and the performers start to make their mark. The succeeding party scene is beautifully realised in so small a space, with groups of balletic figures coming and going through the main entrance and with Onegin and Lensky (almost literally) being pushed into their pointless quarrel. Then the duel: Onegin and Lensky leave the cloisters and shots ring out in the Iford garden night air: Onegin returns slowly centre stage, shattered at what he has just done to his best friend. And then (to my mind, the director's most inspirational idea), Onegin simply stands stock still centre stage, as the notional months and years pass by, whilst a mini ballet sequence is used to dress the performance space all around him for the grand ball of Act 3. And so to the denouement – the re-encounter between Onegin and Tatiana, the formal outpouring of love from her husband Prince Gremin, and the 'tables turned' of the final intimate scene, in which Tatiana admits that she loves Onegin but can never be his. And he can sing 'her' music as much as she likes: the lady that she has now become is not for turning!
Tchaikovsky wanted young, conservatoire performers for this work, not old operatic routiniers. That poses however a colossal challenge to the lady at the heart of things: how often has one seen a convincing, naïve and innocent Tatiana totally fail to transform herself to the grande dame of the final act. No such failing at Iford: as Tatiana, the young Russian/Israeli soprano Ilona Domnich triumphed in the role, by turns hesitant, impulsive, rapturous and, finally, icy and imperious. The voice is easy throughout the register, she managed to spin a fabulously gossamer pianissimo line in the descending scales of the letter scene, and produced warm and full-bodied tone whenever called upon to do so. Occasional problems with the intonation of English vowel sounds (in the workmanlike English translation by David Lloyd Jones) only made this Tatiana seem more idiomatic. Domnich revealed a steady intensity of character throughout the evening, never lost focus, and produced some technical singing that was a joy to experience close up and personal.
Opposite her, as Onegin, Ronan Collett was steady, always a pleasure to listen to with a dark and well-rounded tone, but lacking somehow in those aloof and enigmatic qualities that make Onegin such a difficult character to like. This portrayal was almost too nice: fresh-faced and good looking, Collet's character was not really capable of wreaking the havoc that he does at Tatiana's name day party. But he held his musical line well, grew perceptibly into the challenge of the final scene and turned in a dependable, if not deeply stirring performance.
Katherine Allen played Olga. Looking worried and moody in the very first scene, she could to my mind have been playing Tatiana to the much more relaxed and composed Domnich. Allen has a light mezzo voice, and lacks the occasional Heft that Olga's music requires: not even the tiny Iford performing space gave her much real help in projecting a clear and vivid musical line. Incidentally, the stone flagstones of the cloister itself were entirely covered in earth for the whole of the first half, which had a definite deadening effect on the sound quality, both of the orchestra and of the soloists. Its removal during the interval produced much more resonance and definition in the second half.
Opposite Allen, Hal Cazalet sang an attractive Lensky. His tenor is easy and unforced and he coped well with the higher tessitura of the part, softening his projection and concentrating on sound quality. As is often the case with a good Lensky, his final aria just before the duel commences makes one regret his passing! Cazalet in this instance passed the test – with an assured all-round performance.
The supporting roles were well taken. Julian Close was a much younger, more alert looking Gremin than one often encounters, and the voice promised much as soon as he introduced himself: a resonant, cavernous bass, which he used to good effect. But tuning was very slightly awry in the upper lyrical sections of his one great aria, and it did not quite hit the mark. Charles Rice was a dependable Zaretsky, Kevin Jones an excellent and witty Monsieur Triquet. But the best all-round assumption of a supporting role came from the first-class Carol Rowlands as nurse Filippevna, who used the Iford space as if it really were her own, worked tirelessly and yet unobtrusively to develop her character, and rather outshone the Madame Larissa of Deborah Hawksley. The character interplay between Tatiana and her old nurse in the letter scene was touching and effective.
Oliver Gooch conducted the occasionally slightly scrappy Pepys Ensemble. He achieved good rapport between stage and pit (which at Iford is the rear room of the cloister – a potential nightmare for the under-rehearsed or unwary performer) and he worked hard to keep the musical shape of the work. At times I could have done with more rhythmic élan and more drive: not a question of speed and tempo, as much as articulation and focus – this Onegin had the odd passage of drift, not unpleasant but leading to a lowering of the voltage in a work that demands tension throughout. But his musical sense and feel for the work was much in evidence: suffice it to say that I think he will conduct it better in twenty years' time.
I note that the director, Bernadette Iglich, was assistant director and choreographer to James Conway for the 2007 Eugene Onegin produced by English Touring Opera. She has clearly absorbed the dramatic essentials of the work, even though the feel and shape of that production was totally different to this one (and it had an equally stunning Tatiana in the person of the still up-and-coming Amanda Echalaz). Full credit to her then for shaping and executing an Onegin that played very much to the strengths of Iford and that emerged, by the end, as a convincing piece of music theatre. But the longueurs of a slow and dramatically slack first act keep it for me at the three star level, even though at times it merited more.