Updated: May 28, 2021
Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky, after Pushkin
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Opera House
6 July 2019 – 19 July 2019; 2hr 30min
There’s freshness in the air at the Buxton Festival this year as it celebrates its 40th anniversary – nowhere more so than in the first of the year’s operas, with new artistic director Adrian Kelly conducting for the first time, Jamie Manton making his Buxton directing debut, and a young cast, all making their house debuts.
That’s all to the good, and one continuing factor very much to the good is the quality of the 24-strong festival chorus. They were stalwarts of this interpretation, not just in their singing but also in performing some simple but nicely-executed choreography (by Jasmine Rickets, with dancers Lowri Mashburn and Katie Fairs in the ensemble), and moving stage props around – indeed becoming stage props, of a sort, in some scenes.
Onegin has to have dancing in it, with the much-excerpted Waltz and Polonaise in the score, each as much rooted in the story as the ball scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Its typically Romantic saga could have been the outcome of that other plot line – if you imagine Mr Darcy spurning Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings and going off adventuring for a few years, returning to find her married to someone else and wishing he’d taken his chance when he could have.
Of course Tatyana, the heroine here, begins as a much more innocent and lovestruck girl than Elizabeth (with her father to guide her) ever was. Onegin himself is pretty much a cad, killing his best friend in a duel occasioned by his flirting with Tatyana’s sister. So there’s a much more Byronic flavour to Pushkin’s story – originally told in sonnet-like verse, giving the piece an ironic tone akin to Childe Harold (reflected in this English translation).
All this gives the opera subtleties one hopes to find in its protagonists’ interpretations, as well as enjoying the soaring romance in the music. Jamie Manton leaves them with plenty to do, as the set is about as minimalist as they get: bare boards, autumn leaves, a few chairs and some chandeliers for the first part of the story, some snow for the middle, then better quality chairs for the posh ball in the St Petersburg finale. There is symbolism in the shape of a little girl in ballet shoes who appears beginning and end, and the climax of the duel scene – a sudden plunge into red light – is effective, intriguingly followed by the Polonaise dancers at first carrying death masks and dressed in black.
The principals’ singing is high-quality in every case, the men – George Humphreys as Onegin, David Webb as Lensky, Joseph Doody as M Triquet and Joshua Bloom as Gremin – to my mind fill their roles adequately without ever making us think they’d got real psychological depth in them.
The younger women though – with whom Tchaikovsky perhaps felt the greatest empathy – were contrasted. Shelley Jackson as Tatyana has a darkly-shaded soprano tone of real potential yet never made me think she was a youngster in the agony of desperate passion, even in the highspot of her role, the first act’s famous Letter Scene – though she never wrote a word, as far as I could tell.
Angharad Lyddon, as Olga, sang very well and acted the youthful, carefree soul I always imagined: you could see why Lensky fell for her. Gaynor Keeble and Ceri Williams, Madame Larina and Filipyevena, were excellent and fully inhabited the older women’s characters.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra was in the pit as usual and made a fine fist of the score.