Facts must be faced. Most opera libretti err toward the mad, bad or dangerous to know. Not “Eugene Onegin.” Tchaikovsky’s retelling of Pushkin is not only dramatically compact and psychologically acute, it cleaves to the emotional trajectory of its (anti)hero, maturing from distanced exterior observation to fully embodied passion. So it’s bizarre that so many productions paddle in the shallows when approaching its sophisticated storytelling. This is not a charge that could be made of Steven Pimlott’s bold new Royal Opera House production.
After an absence of almost eight years, Dmitri Hvorostovsky returns to the title role alongside Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, making his role debut as love-struck Lensky. The latter’s burgeoning career could not be hotter, his third solo recital disc having debuted at No. 1 on the classical billboard chart in February. Amanda Roocroft ably completes the troika as Tatiana, a role she first sang at Welsh National Opera.
This is an opera very much concerned with the tension between the public and the private. Onegin’s initial dismissal of young Tatiana’s love is all about how an alliance with someone beneath him might be seen by others who watch and comment.
His arrogance reaches its height at a public party; when the scales fall from his eyes years later, it is once again in the midst of a crowd. These scenes are sharply contrasted with highly emotional scenes in small rooms. Only there can real passions burst forth.
That division is seized upon by a production whose subtitle might be “A River Runs Through It.” In the opening scene, at the bottom of designer Antony McDonald’s grassy bank on Madame Larina’s estate, the girls cheerfully dip their toes in a stream astride the width of the stage. As love turns colds, the river becomes the frozen arena for the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. Then, in a quiet coup de theatre, where you expect the typical nicely danced but dramatically inert ballroom scene accompanied by the orchestral Polonaise, Pimlott moves the scene outdoors, with the river now an ice-rink across which people skate in furs and finery.
The concision of the stage space in the scenes of greatest passion flatters the acting skills of the cast, some of whom are exposed in the wide open space. Hvorostovsky’s smooth, dark tone is a perfect match for the role but, despite a sleek black wig covering his natural mane of white hair to emphasize his youth, his characterization is generalized, reducing tension in the first act.
Villazon’s Lensky is more striking. He appears genuinely tender dueting with Nino Surguladze’s spry, cleanly sung Olga, expressing solicitousness rather than merely opting for the pay ‘n’ display style of tenors for whom acting is an unwelcome intrusion upon their vocal glory. Indeed, his effortless singing of the rhapsodic second-act aria fuels an arresting staging of the duel that sees him suddenly and convincingly wrestle with the idea of suicide.
Although conductor Philippe Jordan occasionally lacks command — some of the ensemble work was ragged — he husbands an affectingly hushed string sound and exudes real strength in terms of pacing. He takes the extended aria of Tatiana’s letter scene notably slowly. The downside of this is it reveals the slightly hooded, mature tone of Roocroft’s voice, which is not ideal for the portrayal of an 18-year-old. But by not sacrificing drama on the altar of inexorable musical flow, Jordan allows detail and individual moments to land.
His feel for character also is there in Monsieur Triquet’s single aria, which is similarly slow. Tonally, this taxes the veteran Ryland Davies, but it lends pathos in a role that is usually sweet but irritating.
The emotional temperature is further controlled by the saturated palette of Peter Mumford’s lighting, which unabashedly runs to blushing pink sunsets and daffodil yellow daylight. That’s in tandem with other vivid choices like the vulgarity of the party scene costumes, which plays against the expected restraint of the class-ridden society portrayed but smartly aids the storytelling. Onegin, after all, snubs Tatiana for the lowliness of her connections — there for all to see in the lime green, fuchsia and gold of her neighbors’ clothes.
Pimlott adds nightmare animal figures that press in upon Tatiana’s imagination, and lowers gauzes between scenes depicting paintings of affected men thereby alerting us to Onegin’s narcissism. Such ideas will be questioned by arch traditionalists, yet whereas this house’s previous production was a pileup of modernist cliches in search of coherence, these are all of a piece. Consciously willful, this new production is occasionally inspired and never less than intelligent.