This is a strange time to see Russian opera.
When one character in Eugene Onegin sings “oh Vladimir, please calm down!” the audience is more than a little wistful.
But Tchaikovsky’s tale of adolescent innocence revenged still packs a punch, and a first class production at Holland Park should be on every music lovers summer list.
At least on stage this Russian bad guy gets his come-uppance.
Tchaikovsky was pushed into writing the opera by one of Russia’s great mezzos – Lavrovskaya.
She persuaded him to look at the original Pushkin novel and to overcome his objections to the simplicity of the plot. After a sleepless night tossing and turning, Tchaikovsky decided she was right.
His work is the tale of a classic anti-hero. One of those very cool characters, in fact one so cool he’s positively cold.
Onegin is persuaded by his best friend Lensky to attend a party at the country house of the widow, Madame Larina.
She has two beautiful daughters Tatyana and Olga, the latter of which is the object of Lensky’s desires.
To the hopelessly romantic Tatyana the worldly Onegin seems quite irresistible, and she falls hopelessly in love.
During the course of a sleepless night – we all know where that idea came from – she naively writes him a love letter, clumsily pledging her love.
The super cool Onegin is unimpressed and cruelly rejects her with considerable mansplaining along the way.
Several years later, Onegin attends a grand ball in St. Petersburg where the roles are reversed, and Tatyana has her revenge.
Onegin is not a particularly attractive character.
He tells us early on how he regrets having to spend time at his dying father’s bedside, and when he picks a quarrel with Lensky, because he’s “bored” and even kills him in a duel, we realize quite how nasty he is.
He is well captured in this production by Samuel Dale Johnson.
Tatyana is a hard role for any soprano to pull off.
She spends the first half encapsulating a schoolgirl crush, and the second as an aloof Princess.
Performers tend to be one or the other and the Armenian/American diva Anush Hovhannisyan is stronger as the latter. Especially in her red ball gown.
All told, the plot is fairly simple, with an overdependence on the concept of love at first sight.
But the music is excellent, and apart from the doomed lovers there are plenty of other roles for singers to get their teeth into.
This is particularly true of the two beautiful cameo arias.
One from Tatyana’s new husband Prince Gremin (Matthew Triff), and the other from Tatyana’s French tutor Monsieur Triquet (Joseph Buckmaster).
Lensky was played by the excellent newcomer Jack Roberts at my performance.
He made the most of his aria mourning the passage of his youth and the end of his friendship with Onegin. He certainly shows tremendous promise.
As does Konrad Jaromin who sang two lesser roles with great gusto.
He is an enormous stage presence, literally, and I am sure is destined for top line billing.
The ever dependable Amanda Roocroft sings Madame Larina, Emma Standard is a competent Olga and Kathleen Wilkinson Filippyevna, Tatyana’s nanny.
Russian operas often require a strong chorus, and we certainly have that here.
They also coped remarkably well with additional performance hazards, not least having to dance in top hats at a ball and helping to endlessly move around what seemed to be identical sets.
All in a glorious production and a reminder of the better side of Russian culture.
Main Picture: Konrad Jaromin and chorus. Picture credit – Ali Wright