Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin at Royal Danish Opera | Live Review

Andrew Mellor
Monday, October 23, 2023

Laurent Pelly's production of Tchaikovsky's lyric opera is a 'fine company achievement' from the Royal Danish Opera

*****

The cast of Eugene Onegin at the Royal Danish Opera | Photo: Henrik Stenberg

Theatrical minimalism can lay the anatomy of faltering human relationships bare. Laurent Pelly’s stark new staging of Eugene Onegin, which opened at La Monnaie in February and has now made it to its co-producers at the Royal Danish Opera, is one of colossal elegance and power. It gives us nothing that isn’t in Tchaikovsky or Pushkin, but overwhelms with its clarity and naturalism.

For the first two acts we see little more than a huge chunk of wood resembling a giant revolving tabletop. With this, and a few chairs, Pelly delivers more than any production of this opera in recent memory. In Act I the chorus shimmies around this wooden structure’s edges while deftly referencing Russian dance traditions - a community in a parallel emotional universe. Stark contrast is drawn between the apparently firm foundations of the Lensky/Olga partnership and the castles-on-sand of that between Onegin and Tatiana, bringing even more sickness to the stomach when both crash and burn. In the meticulously plotted Act I quartet, every footstep counts.

Tatiana is exceptionally well drawn in a role debut from house singer Sofie Elkjær Jensen - back from maternity leave and only getting better, vocally and dramatically. Her head stuck in a novel until Onegin appears, she is the picture of youthful innocence in whom Romantic ideals are simmering unchecked. In the letter scene, Pelly’s giant tabletop folds upwards as if to encase her within the pages of a book. Unhappily married in Act III, she has retreated into literature once more but is now using it to nurture newfound dignity and reserve. Onegin rips a novel from her hands, throws it to the floor and kisses her desperately. Fiction has become real life. It is a moment of colossal dramatic power.

Sofie Elkjær Jensen as Tatiana and Jens Christian Tvilum as Triquet | Photo: Henrik Stenberg

Here as in the letter scene, musical drama is carefully and tightly ratcheted by Marie Jacquot, conducting her first production here since being designated Music Director from next summer. Some orchestral punctuation in the recitative-like passages could use more definition but Jacquot proves far better than most at balancing pit and stage while giving us the illusion of throttling orchestral power. Some eyebrow-raising tempi pay off. She relishes the deep, dark sound of the Royal Danish Orchestra’s strings - a visual counterpoint to the sickly black lacquer of Pelly’s unusually sinister Act III.

Wider changes have evidently taken root by now (frustratingly, the evening’s only set change necessitates a second interval), as if Onegin’s squandered happiness and obstinate pride have infected the whole of high society. The chorus jerks and sways to Lionel Hoche’s choreography, unnervingly minimalist with clear undertones of totalitarianism. They look as tight and suave as they sound.

Physically, Jens Søndergaard charts Onegin’s unraveling vividly. We feel his last-chance desperation acutely as he stumbles down stairs to get to Tatiana. Vocally he is less assured, lacking imposition in Act I but strong in the loneliness and histrionics later on. Jacob Skov Andersen, a Young Artist here until as recently as 2022, makes for an unexpectedly compelling Lensky. His isn’t the most gleaming or sizeable of tenors but it has clarity and grain and he invests it with serious emotional power and theatrical awareness, also plotting a fine physical portrayal. The silence before his poised ‘V vashem dome!’ was telling and what follows does not disappoint.

Astrid Nordstad is a good foil to Tatiana as the carefree Olga. You can hear more oaky Gremins than that from Artyom Wasnetsov - the only non-local singer - but the character’s sincerity is there. Hanne Fischer (Larina) and Johanne Bock (Filipjevna) relish the chance to invest their rich voices with Slavic depth and circular vowels. A fine company achievement and a rare endorsement of the ensemble system, with Jensen’s versatility, sensitivity and quality right at the top of it.

Eugene Onegin is at the Copenhagen Opera House until 15 November 2023 | kglteater.dk

Jacob Skov Andersen, Kyungil Ko and Jens Søndergaard in Eugene Onegin at the Royal Danish Opera | Photo: Henrik Stenberg

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