Review: Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia

Nicole Car as Tatyana & Konstantin Gorny as Gremin. Image by Lisa Tomasetti, courtesy Opera Australia
Nicole Car as Tatyana & Konstantin Gorny as Gremin. Image by Lisa Tomasetti, courtesy Opera Australia


Eugene Onegin,

Opera in three acts by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky libretto by Konstantin Shilovksy and Tchaikovsky, after the novel by Alexander Pushkin

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House,

Opera Australia, February 28th 2014.

Opera Australia unveiled Kasper Holten’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Sydney Opera House last week. It is the first foray into directing for the Director of Opera at Covent Garden where the production premiered a year ago. Based on the novel in verse by Pushkin, Tchaikovsky himself wrote the libretto along with his friend Konstantin Shilovsky. Their text preserves as much as possible of Pushkin’s original verses.

The tale is simple. Tatyana is a rough diamond; a country girl who can nonetheless, read and write. She falls in love with Onegin, a sophisticated visitor from the city and friend of Lensky. She dares to express her love for him in a letter. He gently rejects her saying her loves her as a brother. In the meantime, Lensky and Onegin fall out over Tatyana and her flighty sister Olga. Lensky is killed by Onegin in the ensuing duel. Years later, Tatyana and Onegin meet after Tatyana has married the nobleman Gremin. Onegin attempts to re-ignite his lost love but it is too late. The merit of both novel and opera are in its telling and for this, Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score and the vocal and dramatic abilities of the cast are paramount.

There were strong performances all round from the Australian and international cast. Nicole Car as Tatyana delivered the vocally demanding role with conviction and finesse. Dalibor Jenis as the anti-hero Onegin brought a deliberate haughty woodenness to his role later allowing himself to unravel as he realises his double loss of friendship as well as love. The combination of his voice and his delivery of Russian created moments of exquisite colour. James Egglestone was heroic as the doomed Lensky; the three lower female voices of Sian Pendry (Olga), Dominica Matthews (Madame Larina) and Jacqueline Dark (Filippyevna) were quite formidable. There was one moment of consummate beauty, one of the most special in the opera, when Russian bass Konstantin Gorny as Prince Gremin gave a powerfully understated rendition of his aria. The verity he brought to the role along with his credentials of having sung the role at the Vienna State Opera with Hvorostovsky as Onegin and Netrebko as Tatyana reassures that the singers Opera Australia brings to Sydney are amongst the world’s best.

Perhaps to enhance the narrative or to illustrate Tchaikovsky’s dance infused score, Holten has cast dancers as the alter-egos of Tatyana and Onegin. This is the third time in as many months that audiences in Sydney have witnessed dancers sharing the stage with the singers in an operatic production -the other two productions being Dido and Aeneas from the Sydney Festival and Elektra from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The reaction to this has been that whilst the choreography and dancers have merit in their own right, their presence detracts from the power of the music and the vocal performances. The observation is no less true in this instance. The distraction of the dancers, the presence of deadwood and Lensky’s corpse on stage along with the appearance of Gremin as Tatyana and Onegin untangle in the final scene, tend to overstate the simplicity of the story, leaving little to the imagination.

The action on stage is handsomely supported by Wolfgang Goebbel’s lighting and Mia Stensgaard’s set of three double doors, like Proscenium arches, looking into various parts of the Larin estate, the duel scene and Gremin’s palace. Katrina Lindsay costumes her chorus of peasants and ballroom guests in ominous black; Lensky and Olga are in muted tones with the two protagonists Tatyana and Onegin in strong colours. The ‘matronly’  Tatyana is clad in a richly jeweled gown which opens to reveal flashes of the red of her youthful past and passion.

The Opera Australia Chorus and Orchestra excelled with conductor Guillaume Tourniaire bringing the whole together. Highly recommended.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Eugene Onegin is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected dates until March 28th.

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