When Eugene Onegin premiered in 1879, it was at the Moscow Conservatory rather than a prestigious opera house, and with a student cast. Having risked public ire in setting Pushkin’s revered text, Tchaikovsky rejected grand theatricality for simple, sincere expression: “To hell with scenic effects,” he wrote; “what I need is human beings, not puppets … beings similar to myself who have experienced sensations which I, too, have experienced.”
In this chamber production for Mid Wales Opera, director-designer Richard Studer certainly keeps things simple – and the stripped-bare, period staging has a basic charm. But he takes his own risks with a light-touch directorial approach that relies too heavily on individual singers to convey (in English translation) not only complex characters which develop over time, but the clash of rustic and metropolitan cultures.
As a result, the drama lacks depth and focus – and music director Jonathan Lyness’ score reduction proves double-edged: on the one hand, using just 12 musicians (a very willing Ensemble Cymru) emphasises domestic intimacy but, on the other, it leaves Tchaikovsky’s expansive romantic lyricism feeling short-changed – especially where singers fail to supply colouristic warmth.
Oddly, the dynamic balance is largely in the musicians’ favour, with George von Bergen’s mannequin Onegin sounding remote in more ways than one. His Tatyana, Elizabeth Karani, has more clarity and drive, gamely supported by Maria Jagusz’ Filipyevna and, in particular, Ailsa Mainwaring as a ringlet-shaking Olga.
Smaller roles are spirited – notably Nicholas Moreton’s Zaretsky and Sion Goronwy’s Gremin – and the reduced chorus is nonetheless robust. But the vocal and dramatic highlight is Robyn Lyn Evans’ Lensky. Sensitive yet quick to judge, he captures the sense of a poet torn between private emotional turmoil and rigid social convention.