I may have been the only person to fly in from Bangkok to catch Covent Garden’s new Eugene Onegin, but I was probably not the only one to enjoy this production’s many virtues — the gorgeous playing of the orchestra, the always interesting if sometimes overwrought conducting of Glyndebourne’s new director-elect Robin Ticciati, or the exquisitely idiomatic singing of the principals, notably Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana and Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin.
What everyone is actually talking about, however, is the direction. There seems to be a lot of condemnation flying around, but Kasper Holten’s reading of the opera is a serious one, and its premise by no means ludicrous. It’s just that it’s not completely coherent in places.
When the curtain rises, we witness the past through the eyes of an older Tatyana, relegating the star to standing on the sidelines whilst a younger double mimes the role, it is at first an engaging gimmick and not at all a random thought imposed on an unreceptive structure; the perspective is already latent in Pushkin’s poem. This could have been an extremely effective theatrical device had it been applied consistently, even though it does sacrifice the prima donna’s ability to show off her acting.
But when, as the story progresses, Onegin turns out to have a double as well, thereby resulting in the duel scene being “emoted by proxy”, and when the corpse of Lensky is forced to double as a coffee table through the second act, we realise that a potentially very perceptive concept has tied itself into too many knots and has much less to say than it could have. Less would surely have been more. Pavol Breslik was a bit of a zombie when he first walked on as Lensky, but he warmed up well and became extremely convincing; seeing him dead for thirty minutes was not a good use of twelve square feet of downstage.
Of course, miming doubles are hardly new; I remember a Walküre at La Monnaie in the 1960s in which the Siegmund-Sieglinde duet was done that way. When they sang about their childhood, a second set of teenage doubles entered the scene, creating a very crowded duet for six. Of course there was one huge difference between the 60s and today: then, the conductor walked out and the audience booed; in 2013, the conductor coped as best he could and the audience possibly closed its eyes and imagined its own mise-en-scène. By doing so they would have missed an elegant (if heavy-handedly metaphorical) design that used giant doors not only as symbols but as a way to focus the entire action downstage; designer Mia Stensgaard was very sensitive to the concept as was Wolfgang Göbbel’s well-thought-out lighting scheme. However, they would have been able to enjoy a well sung and brilliantly played opera. But who wants to do that these days?