Bizarre ‘Eugene Onegin’; Crude ‘Traviata’: London Opera

The hero and heroine of a new production of “Eugene Onegin” are split in two. It’s as painful as it sounds.

This is the first staging at Covent Garden by Kaspar Holten, who has been director of opera since autumn 2011. It’s a novel situation, since the job title refers to an administrative post. Holten actually happens to direct operas too.

His big idea here is to present the hero and heroine of Tchaikovsky’s opera simultaneously with their younger selves, performed by dancers.

One Tatyana, matronly and solid, sings about writing an audacious love letter, while another young and bouncy Tatyana flings herself about the stage with a pen in her hand.

One Onegin prepares to fight a duel with his former best friend, while an older Onegin looks on gloomily.

It’s about memory, you see. The story is constantly in a state of flashback.

Maybe in spoken theater, this distancing device could work. In opera, which hits all its buttons when character, song, drama, gesture and passion make a glorious synthesis, it’s very odd to parcel the constituent parts out, a bit here, a bit there.

Needs Glasses

It’s strangely amusing when Tatyana’s beloved Nanny talks to a slip of a girl one moment and then to a mature woman, without seeming to notice the difference. Time to get the glasses checked, Nanny.

There’s not visual coherence either. Mia Stensgaard’s set is a row of four high doors which run the width of the stage, leaving a narrow ribbon of space near the front for the action. The Act 3 Polonaise is a squished affair.

The costumes are based on various 19th-century fashions, stylized with odd variants. Madame Larina wears mutton-sleeves and a corset: so far, so 1830s. Then her full skirt is gathered in at the bottom into a kind of upside-down puffball, and then twisted to one side.

Anyone found wearing that particular look in the 1830s would probably have been carted off to the madhouse.

At least the singing is world class. Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatyana) has a rich melting sound, beautiful through and through, and Simon Keenlyside (Onegin) invests every note with warmth and passion. Pavol Breslik (Lensky) and Elena Maximova (Olga) provide superb support.

Conductor Robin Ticciati sometimes hits his stride, sometimes falters. Rating: **1/2.

La Traviata

Things are even worse at “La Traviata” over at English National Opera. If you’re going to punch a sweet child in the face, at least do it properly.

When Germont Pere slaps a pigtailed moppet (his daughter, a non-singing role added by the director) right across the kisser, it looks unconvincing to the point of parody.

It’s the least of the problems of Peter Konwitschny’s production, first seen in Graz in 2011. That Germont biffs the girl at all is a clue to the mess.

Konwitschny presents Germont as a sneering, leering, crude, sarcastic, violent boor. His son Alfredo is a nerdy bookworm, dressed in a bad cardigan.

Verdi gives these characters light and shade. Konwitschny reduces them to cardboard cut-outs in his modern-dress production, which arrogantly trims the score down to 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval.

Why does Violetta fall in love with this nincompoop Alfredo, and crave affection from this unconvincing Germont? Beats me.

Corinne Winters sings up a storm as the tubercular courtesan -- her voice is both rich and agile -- and is by far the best thing in the production.

Since the set is a series of pairs of red curtains, each opening to reveal yet another pair, there’s not much to take one’s mind off Michael Hofstetter’s harum-scarum conducting. Rating: **.

“Eugene Onegin” is in repertory at the Royal Opera. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000

“La Traviata” is in repertory at ENO. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market and Ryan Sutton on food.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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