Kiwi leading Scottish Opera through decade of successes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
Scottish Opera
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Internationally opera companies have a reputation for crises be it financial, aesthetic or with management. Scottish Opera has had its share of these crises but, since 2006 with the appointment of Alex Reedijk, the former director of NBR New Zealand Opera, the company has been extremely successful, winning several awards as well as touring to major European centres. The company mounts more than a dozen productions a year, many of which tour to venues in Scotland. This latest production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was performed in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Belfast.

In his history of Russia Jonathan Dimbleby recalls the country of a few years ago, writing that it was a “social environment corroded by bad faith and self-delusion.” His words are as apt now as they were over 100 years ago when Tchaikovsky wrote his opera and 50 years before that when Pushkin wrote his verse novel, Eugene Onegin.

The Eugene Onegin character stands as a metaphor for the lost soul of Russia, given to self-aggrandisement, self-defeating, inward-looking and condemned to repeat the mistakes of history.

It is the sort of tale Russians seem to be condemned to write about themselves.

The opera begins on a country estate where Tatyana is introduced to Onegin by her sister and Olga’s betrothed, Lensky. Tatyana is entranced with Onegin and writes a letter to him expressing her love but he rejects her.

Later at a ball the haughty Onegin riles Lensky by courting Olga. Lensky picks a fight and challenges him to a duel but Onegin kills him.

Many years later Onegin encounters the now married Tatyana (to Prince Gremin) at a St Petersburg ball.

Onegin declares his love for Tatyana but she in turn rejects him, even though she loves him. Broken-hearted, Onegin leaves.

Singing the role of Tatyana was Natalya Romaniv, who brought an elegance to the role and a voice that was captivating and poignant.

The letter aria she sings in the first act is a beautiful and eloquent piece but not highly dramatic. It requires the singer to impart subtly in inflection and tone to provide the expressions of love tinged with wretchedness. Romaniv captured these aspects and the almost sorrowful acceptance that she was in love with a voice of raw emotion. For this she received a thundering ovation from the audience.

Her voice showed its strength in the party scene where it rose above the other singers with a touching delicacy.

As Onegin, Samuel Dale Johnson was a fine match to Tatyana. In the scene in which he rebukes her for having sent him the love letter, he conveyed a supercilious arrogance that was tragic and slightly comic.

Lensky, sung by Peter Auty, provided some achingly fine singing in the duel scene where he reflected on lost youth, regret, agony and fear.

Graeme Broadbent gave an exceptionally moving performance as the courteous older Prince Gremlin, who tells of his great joy in having married Tatyana, providing a brilliant foil to the self-absorbed Onegin.

Alison Kettlewell as the anxious mother, Sioned Gwen Davies as Tatyana’s sister and Anne-Marie Owens as the nurse had a sensitivity to their singing that gave the first act a well-judged naturalism.

Productions of the opera often feature Onegin and or Tatyana at the close and opening of the work, showing them in old age regretting their decisions. In this production the older Tatyana is on stage the whole time, an ethereal presence watching and observing her life. Played by Rosy Sanders, she provided a constant reminder of the tragedy that is to unfold and her presence in what could be a derelict mansion adds to the sense of regret.

The set designed by Annemarie Woods was a virtually bare interior with a few broken chairs. This served effectively as the sole space, with massed chorus scenes of peasants and nobles seen mainly as silhouettes on a gauze curtain at the rear.

The production took the brave step of having Onegin arrive on stage riding a horse, which provided more of a comic rather than a dramatic touch, and for first night audiences apparently it was seen as farce with the horse following the W C Fields dictum of never working with animals or children, by leaving a deposit on the stage.

Future shows: Pagliacci July 26-29, Bambino August/September, Pop-Up Touring Opera until October, Rigoletto October/November.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.