Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Mattei, Samuil, Gubanova, Kaiser, Furlanetto; VPO/Barenboim; Salzburg Festival 2007 (DG 0734434)

17 August 2008 3 stars

Eugene OneginThe box for this new release of Eugene Onegin is emblazoned with positive press reactions at the time of its performance in last year's Salzburg Festival. 'Masterly down to the smallest detail', says one, but although Andrea Breth's production is excellently executed, there are times when it just comes across as too inconsistent a vision of Tchaikovsky's masterly opera, depressingly devoid of romance.

Kenneth Chalmers' liner note, which does little more than patch together further positive press reactions, tells us that the theme for the festival itself was 'The Nocturnal Side of Reason.' Breth's production certainly seems keen to emphasise the darkness of Tchaikovsky's opera in attempting to walk a 'tight-rope between the realistic and the allusively poetic'. Unfortunately, little attempt is made to relate these two sides to one another. Onegin sits slumped at the beginning of each act, watching monotonous images on a television. While this does indeed 'suggest a more profound, malaise', by the introduction to the third act, it's an image that has decidedly outstayed its welcome.

On the other hand, Tatyana's nurse is an almost permanent presence in the whole of the first act. She is recast, it seems, as a witch-like character - admittedly brilliantly played by Emma Sarkissian - who exercises mysterious power over Tatyana's fate. This is less disturbing, though, than the simply bizarre way that, as Tatyana tells her of her love for Onegin, her grandson digs a grave which she then settles down to sleep in. One of the 'disturbing, enigmatic images' of the production, this to my mind crosses the line from the 'allusively poetic' into the nonsensical.

The action is updated to 1980s Russia, a world inhabited by disgruntled farm and factory workers and governed by an uncaring, heavy-drinking military. Even in the party scenes, they all remain essentially disinterested and apathetic; this is a dull, depressed existence and one, it has to be said, that often contradicts what's going on in Tchaikovsky's score. This is literally the case when the 'Polonaise' plays at the opening of the final act and a lone man dances in drunken frenzy to an unrelated rhythm.

Inevitably this updating makes the turning point of the work, the duel, anachronistic. More importantly, though, it also shifts too much of the irrationality the production seeks to emphasise onto the characters themselves. Pushkin was surely producing a critique of a world where archaic social conventions – in this case the need for certain disagreements to be settled by a duel – served to magnify individuals' irrational actions into something far more destructive. In this nihilistic society that element is missing.

Against this background, the emotional warmth of Lensky's idealism is all the more welcome, and Joseph Kaiser's assumption of the role is very well sung and acted; his death all the more tragic given his drab environment. Unfortunately, though, the complicated relationship between Onegin and Tatyana failed to engage me in the same way. Onegin is always a difficult character to capture but although in the first two acts he should be haughty, with a certain arrogance, Peter Mattei's portrayal is simply too unsympathetic. As he struts around in shades, ostentatiously tossing his car keys about, he quickly loses his appeal. There's little of the mystique that both we, as an audience, and Tatyana should find attractive under the surface. Dramatically, things are made more problematic by the fact Anna Samuil's worldly Tatyana displays little potential at first for the feelings that finally erupt in her letter scene – the letter itself, unromantically, is typed rather handwritten.

It is a shame that the production contrives to undermine our sympathy with the characters since the later scenes between Onegin and Tatyana are tightly directed. Their final confrontation is stirringly sung and acted with admirable commitment. Mattei, in particular, manages throughout the whole of the final act to portray Onegin's regret at the realization of his mistake with unerring skill. Even here, though, Breth's insistence on overloading the production with symptoms of a society in disarray is distracting, as a drunkard lies about laughing during the introduction to Onegin's Arioso. Both principles sing their roles well. Mattei's smooth baritone is suave and seductive throughout, even if it loses some of its allure as the evening progresses. Samuil sings stylishly and her voice, whilst not the most thrilling instrument, is smooth and rich across the range.

There's a piece of luxury casting in Ferruccio Furlanetto's cameo appearance as Gremin, and his rich bass doesn't disappoint in the aria. Ryland Davies's doddery Triquet is extremely well sung while Ekaterina Gubanova suggests several levels of motivation as Olga. Daniel Barenboim conducts the Vienna Philharmonic with bags of romantic freedom, taking some passages dangerously slow, but managing on the whole to keep the drama moving; the orchestra play with their customary tonal splendour. Barenboim's sweeping vision of the score, though, seems only to emphasise the lack of romance in the production.

The sound and image quality is high but Brian Large's video direction is often badly synchronised with Martin Zehetgruber's grand, ingeniously revolving set, designed to allow cinematic scene changes. Unfortunately, there are times when the camera angles change, or we zoom in on the stage at the same time as the whole set revolves. The effect at these points is simply too disorientating, undermining a device that must have been highly effective in the theatre.

By Hugo Shirley