You’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatically satisfying production on an Australian operatic stage than Opera Australia’s Eugene Onegin. A co-production with the Royal Opera House in London, directed by its artistic director Kasper Holten, this Eugene Onegin draws together a cast of our finest operatic performers who, under Holten’s direction, craft a richly textured narrative full of sharply drawn characters.
Onegin is hardly obscure, but it’s rarely performed in Australia. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel set in Russia in the early 1800s, it follows the young, innocent Tatyana (Nicole Car), who falls madly in love with a visitor, Eugene Onegin (Paulo Szot). She declares her love to him, but he rejects her advances, despite his strong feelings for her. Things gradually fall apart for Onegin, and when he meets Tatyana years later, he desperately tries to rekindle what they shared. It’s a relatively complex plot (although Holten conveys it with clarity) with psychological twists and turns, but it has a basic “gather ye rosebuds” message.
Holten gets under the skin of these characters and deep into their psyches. His directorial choices are consistently inventive, and while they’re bold, they never feel gratuitous. From the small details moulded into the performances (where emphases lie, the physical relationships between each character) to his use of video projections by Leo Warner, which meld perfectly with Mia Stensgaard’s attractive set, he masterfully brings the turmoil of Tatyana and Onegin to the stage. The attention to detail is remarkable in Signe Fabricius’ choreography (which is pitched at a singer-appropriate level when it needs to be) and Katrina Lindsay’s beautifully understated period costumes.
Holten uses dancers as a young Tatyana (Emily Ranford) and a young Onegin (Sam Coleby), who appear in moments associated with painful memories, physically stepping in for the singers. But the dramatic heavy lifting is really left to the singers.
Australian soprano Nicole Car and Polish-Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot make a fiery pair as Tatyana and Onegin. It’s not difficult to see the future that lays ahead of Car as she delivers the 12-minute “letter scene”, following a clear emotional and vocal line from beginning to end. Her technical skills have never been stronger and her musical choices are always on point. She doesn’t really fire on all cylinders, vocally, until the final scene, but everything in this production takes its time to build.
Szot won a Tony Award for his performance in South Pacific in 2008, and it’s clear to see why. His ability as an actor and the natural, connected quality of his voice shine through. He does sacrifice some vocal quality for his characterisation, but I doubt anybody could complain when the result is this compelling.
James Egglestone brings youthful exuberance and naivety to his performance as Lensky, with one of his finest vocal performances yet. There’s a brightness to his voice, and in the final scene of the first act, he truly impresses. And he manages to lay completely still at the front of the stage for a good 30 minutes.
The supporting cast is made up of the best actors in Opera Australia’s ranks. Sian Pendry juxtaposes her Olga perfectly against Car’s Tatyana, Dominica Matthews brings bitterness and fretfulness as Madame Larina, Jacqui Dark bumbles beautifully as Filippyevna and Kanen Breen delivers a comedic masterclass in his brief stage time as Triquet. Daniel Sumegi also makes a big impact as Prince Gremin with his final act aria.
Musically, the production is sublime, with fine performances all around. Orchestra Victoria is in fine form under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, who draws the players from moments of even discipline through to moments of frenetic, furious energy. The brass players are occasionally overpowering, but it’s a sensitive and skilful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score.
There are only five performances of Eugene Onegin in Melbourne, and there were a fair few spare seats on opening night. Forget that production of Carmen you’ve already seen and take a chance on Onegin. You won’t go in humming the tunes, but you’ll leave undoubtedly satisfied.
Featured image by Jeff Busby.