Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Directed by Steven Pimlott; conducted by Philippe Jordan. Tatyana: Amanda Roocroft; Lensky: Rolando Villazón; Onegin: Dmitri Hvorastovsky
A stunning production of this great opera. I write, once again, much after the fact; today is March 26, and I have some leisure after a full week’s work in the British Library. It is in some ways more chamber opera than grand opera. Granted the presence of the chorus, in several guises, especially the scene in which Onegin thoughtlessly provokes his friend Lenski to jealousy sufficient to issue a challenge to a duel, there are long, crucial scenes involving two or three principals — most especially the last scene of all, in which Onegin, once again the foolish, narcissistic man he has always been, confronts Tatyana in her library-boudoir, declares himself, and bids her run away from her elderly husband with him; she refuses, repeatedly, and leaves Onegin in despair.
Whereupon the opera ends. In short, all the aspects of the dramatic action that really matter are private, involve personal feelings, and are carried on at a distinct remove from public life. So the mode is a sort of chamber mode, in which the composer takes care to expose, for our understanding, sympathy, and great musical pleasure, the individual hearts and souls of his characters. The singing was quite wonderful, suitably emotive and evocative, and touching. Tchaikovsky reveals himself here to be a master of the genre, and everything is absolutely of a piece, dramatically and musically . . . and visually, too, in this production. A major feature is a body of water, which later turns to ice as spring and summer give way to winter and to a corresponding chilling of the prospects for Tatyana and Onegin to come together in happiness. The lovely primary colors of the first scene, in which we have a foreground of the house, then the water over which is built a simple footbridge, and then rolling hills in the near and far distance, were beautiful and striking — reminiscent, for me, of landscape paintings by David Hockney on view some years back at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The outdoor winter scene, later in the opera, featured seemingly the same body of water, now turned to ice, though the geographical location was different. Did they use roller-blade skates specially designed? People could “skate” on this surface but could also walk on it without imminent danger of slipping and falling. In scene iii of Act I, in which Onegin arrives at the house, returns the letter full of amorous hopes that Tatyana the lovesick girl has sent him, lectures her on proper behavior, and leaves for the greater world, in the closing moments Tatyana follows the retreating figure of Onegin onto the near side of the footbridge, and as the tab curtain swiftly falls casts the crumpled letter into the water.
It is a lucid, beautiful moment, bringing all the features of the opera, musical, visual, and dramatic, together — and serving also as an ominous prediction of things to come. It is real water, by the way, and at one point six or eight “peasants” (stage hands) went into it and moved a large wagon, on which the interior of Tatyana’s bedroom (Act I, scene ii) had been constructed, from center stage to offstage, turning it as they went, all of this of course in sight of the audience. It’s the sort of thing I really love to see — a chamber opera that doesn’t stint on full-scale visual effect, lovely on its own and yet never getting in the way of the more important things it serves.