This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.
The production directed by Daniel Slater has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of the directing to start emerging.
The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of warmth and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the subtle and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness. A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is exactly at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three. Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element, Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short flippant conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the telling look she gave Leese.
After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise stark palette. The dance takes place and gradual inflammation of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.
One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.
The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with choristers dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.
Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.
Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.