Onegin at the Coliseum
Eugeny/Eugene Onègin stands out amongst the operas of Tchaikovsky; none of the others have so securely captured the hearts and minds of audiences. Surely Fate drew him to Pushkin's verse-novel because of the parallel between its story and an event in the composer's own life: a letter declaring love from a young woman. In the opera the recipient rejects her; in life the composer, homosexual though he was, married her. With disastrous result in real life, and a near one in the opera.
Deborah Warner is the director of the new production of the work given for the first time by ENO in the Coliseum on November 12. Onegin is, in any ways, an intimate piece but Warner obviously likes plenty of people onstage; so there were hordes at every opportunity, sometimes to the point of distraction. Tom Pye's handsome set for scene one has in the background of the home of Madame Larins and her daughters Olga and Tatyana a barn with a vast wooden door leading to a foreground big space, not exactly a room but an area that houses farm implements – Tatyana sleeps here, apparently denied a bedroom. workers mill round ceaselessly, making it difficult to focus, for example, on Lensky's lovely song, sung eloquently by Toby Spence. There must have been close to a hundred in the two ballroom scenes, surely not necessary …and expensive.
In Castor and Pollux the previous evening in the same theatre we had three principals whose singing was exemplary: pure streams of tone, untainted by wobbles or inaccurate pitch. But the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz seemed to possess none of these should be requisites of a singer. Her Tatyana looked good and acted well, particularly in the heart-breaking final scene when she affirms that she still loves Onegin, but nevertheless, rejects him. Onegin himself was sung by the Norwegian baritone, Audun Iversen, short on stage presence, long in singing. The minor characters all performed well, suitably directed by Deborah Warner. Chorus and orchestra were tiptop under Edward Gardner so that, with impressive sets and, above all, the masterpiece that is Tchaikovsky's, a (fairly) good evening was had by all.
Tchaikovsky wrote: when I am composing an opera, it means (1) I must not see a soul during certain hours of the day and I must know that no one can see or hear me: I have a habit, when composing, of singing very loud and the thought that someone could hear me disturbs me very much. (2) A grand piano is at my disposal near me, i.e. in my bedroom – without which I cannot write, at least not easily and peacefully.
But to a lady who enquired how Tchaikovsky composed he answered: "Sitting down."