Pride and humiliation. Rejection and betrayal. Naivety and regret. Jealousy, impulse. At times during Eugene Onegin it seems as if all human experience is laid out before us. Of course, there is more to life than can be expressed by the emotional rollercoaster of well-to-do young people on a 19th-century Russian country estate. But Tchaikovsky’s achievement, based on Pushkin’s, was to realise with extreme sensitivity the inner world of his characters – and make us identify with them.
Few stagings in my experience have pierced this inner world as vividly as Graham Vick’s 1994 Glyndebourne version, and at this latest revival it does so with greater wisdom and power than ever. It starts with one huge advantage – the conducting of UK debutant Omer Meir Wellber, who exposes the core of Tchaikovsky’s emotional outpourings with a reading that combines intense lyricism and, in the dance scenes, virtuosic vitality. The London Philharmonic’s double basses have never sounded so rich and deep. Add an immaculate chorus – bouquets to chorus master Jeremy Bines – and you have the foundation of an exceptional performance.
Unlike the previous revival in 2008, Vick himself has returned to direct a new cast of principals, mostly east Europeans, and it shows. Sunday’s first night was compellingly fresh and truthful, in the swirling ensembles as much as in the claustrophobic intimate scenes, where the acting extols the power of restraint. So much is achieved with so little. Richard Hudson’s stage space is defined not by decor but by the drawing of stage-wide curtains, providing just enough atmosphere and focus to feed our imagination.
The Slavonic tones of the principal singers make a significant difference to this Onegin – best of all in the two scenes where Andrei Bondarenko’s Onegin and Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Tatyana confront each other. Both sing with poise, focus and uncommon elegance: everything is internalised, and we hang on their every word. Ekaterina Sergeeva’s Olga has star quality, while Edgaras Montvidas makes a lanky, clarion Lensky. With Taras Shtonda’s genial Gremin, Diana Montague’s gracious Madame Larina and a host of affectionate cameos, this Onegin has “must see” written all over it.