Tim Redmond with the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus, and a uniformly excellent cast of soloists delivered a superb concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Cambridge West Road on December 16.
Award-winning singers Katherine Broderick and Julien Van Mellaerts played the major roles of Tatyana and Onegin, with Nicky Spence as Lensky and Bethan Langford as Olga.
Eugene Onegin based on Pushkin’s poem is a masterpiece which, instead of focusing on operatic giants, centres on the lives of life-like individuals. It speaks of universal things, some of which everyone at some point in life is obliged to recognise - missed opportunities, irrecoverable loss and ineluctable twists of fate.
The introspective Tatyana writes a love letter to Onegin who coldly rejects her. Later at a ball, and for no other reason than to alleviate his boredom, Onegin succeeds in making a jealous enemy of his lifelong friend, Lensky, by flirting with his fiancée, Olga.
A duel ensues in which Lensky is killed. Onegin goes into exile, only to return 5 years later to find Tatyana married to Prince Gremin. Now he discovers that he is in love with her (as she still with him), but it’s too late. Tatyana chooses dutiful life with her husband and abandons Onegin to the anguish, the loneliness and despair he had once forced upon her.
Tchaikovsky’s true preoccupation, despite the opera’s title, is with Tatyana, not Onegin, and her fate seems to have aroused in him an intense creativity by means of which he examines fraught personal situations at the expense of drama. Here is a work in which feelings give importance to the action and not the action to the feelings.
Everything derives from the letter scene, one of the most famous in opera, and Katherine Broderick’s wonderful soprano traced with great delicacy the shifting emotions of the fateful writing process where each stage is meticulously expressed by the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s memorable music. Her performance throughout proved capable of both lyricism and passion, displayed to the full in her final encounters with Onegin.
Julien Van Mellaerts’ Onegin had just the right amount of cool restraint and attitude to reflect the Byronic posturing and sense of ennui in which he speaks like a man three times his age to the ingenuous Tatyana.
He was an appropriate counterpart to Nicky Spence whose presentation of Lensky powerfully communicated his impotent rage at the supposed loss of Olga (a lovely performance by Bethan Langford), as it equally did his sadness in the heart- breaking aria wherein he recalls his lost happiness.
The engaging ballroom scene featuring the famous waltz had some members of the excellent Philharmonic Chorus irresistibly participating in the heady spirit of proceedings, and the orchestra made this a splendid occasion, as it did with the equally famous Polonaise and Écossaise, performing also with intense conviction the many moving passages in which we were allowed to experience the expressive precision of Tchaikovsky’s music.
Monsieur Triquet whose little song in praise of Tatyana is placed in the opera to regulate the pace of the developing quarrel was played amusingly by Mark Wilde (with a very good French accent), and there were confident contributions from Yvonne Howard (Larina) and Fiona Kimm (Filippyevna), perfect exemplars of the solid homely and rural virtues which Onegin’s arrival overturns.
It is important for the opera, too, that Prince Gremin is a real enough person to make Tatyana’s loyalty plausible, and Matthew Hargreaves’ strong presence, especially in his beautifully sung aria in praise of his wife, was successful in convincing us that it was not simply an intervention by Gremin between Tatyana and Onegin that prevented a renascence of their love, but that it was Tatyana’s decision alone to renounce Onegin.
This opera with its many contrasting moods and subtlety of detail must be extremely hard to perform, but the Cambridge Philharmonic, Chorus and soloists in their collective endeavours made up a classic example of the art that conceals art.