Review: Eugene Onegin, by Tchaikovsky, at the Gothenburg Opera

Tatyana (Carolina Sandgren) at the ball. Photo: Mats Bäcker

Eugene Onegin, lyrical scenes in three acts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Performed at the Gothenburg Opera, 4 May 2011.

By reviving a successful production from 2008, the Gothenburg Opera no doubt imagined they might be able to sell out four performances of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful opera Eugene Onegin. But the music critics were conspicuous by their absence, a lack of coverage that probably explains why there were unusually many empty seats on Wednesday when I went to see the production.

As in 2008, the visual aspects of the production were beautiful. The set and costumes were firmly based on the period the opera was written. In particular, Zuzana Ježková’s costumes were based on contemporary photographs and were excellent all round. The set was sparing with colour, much like the birch trees that were a theme in the design for the countryside setting of the first act.

The orchestra however were not quite on top form. Sometimes they drowned out the singers, and there were a few too many avoidable fluffs (a particular shame being the trumpet section’s confusion at the beginning of the Polonaise).

Of the singers many were veterans of the original production. Lensky (Nikola Matišic) sang sensitively and performed his aria particularly well. His acting in this scene and the previous one, where jealousy of Onegin’s flirtation with his fiancée Olga destroys his friendship and results in him challenging Onegin to a duel, was excellent.

While Lensky was protrayed sympathetically, Onegin (Gabriel Suovanen) was frankly a bit of a cad; after he devastated Tatyana by pouring cold water on her teenage declaration of love he walked off twirling his cane. Mr Suovanen’s version of Onegin stressed his cynicism over his ennui. While this is a perfectly valid interpretation, it does make it more difficult for the audience to empathise with Onegin’s suffering as he kills his best friend in a duel and then falls hopelessly in love with the woman he spurned, who by then is married. Mr Suovanen’s singing had also deteriorated somewhat since 2008, though his acting was still excellent throughout the performance.

The quality of the supporting cast was generally very good. Erika Sax’s Larina was perhaps a bit young-looking (usually the problem in opera productions is more the reverse) but caught the audience’s attention with excellent singing from the start. Filippyevna (Ingrid Tobiasson) was also both well sung and acted with personality, especially when opposite Tatyana. The chorus and supporting dancers carried off their scenes with aplomb.

Olga (Ann-Kristin Jones) was one of the highlights of the show: vivacious and cheerful, she was an effective contrast to Tatyana’s romantic and introspective mood.

Tatyana (Carolina Sandgren, replacing Annalena Persson in the original production) also performed well. Though she struggled slightly in the letter scene, her singing was otherwise very good and very much in character. And the way she portrayed the sad and idealistic girl who is in many ways the opera’s real main character was moving, especially in the powerful final scene where she and Onegin confront their emotions on a stage stripped of its set: a fitting visual representation of their emotional vulnerability.

All in all, a very worthwhile revival, despite its blemishes.

Onegin (Gabriel Suovanen) and Tatyana (Carolina Sandgren) say their final farewell. Photo: Mats Bäcker

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