Eugene Onegin in Liège

My first operatic performance abroad since March 2020! Tchaikovsky’s full-blooded romantic piece Eugene Onegin seemed, after months of deprivation, to be a good choice but what about the venue, Liège’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie which in the past has provided me with experiences of – shall we say – mixed quality? Admittedly, a new regime had taken over with Stefano Pano as Artistic Director and Speranza Scappucci as his musical partner generating ambitious plans for relaunching activities after the Covid lockdown. Tchaikovsky’s popular romantic work would certainly attract a sizeable audience and was likely to be a success if good singers could be engaged.

As to the latter, the administration cannot be criticised. The strong cast was drawn almost exclusively from countries with Russian affiliation. Vassily Ladyuk was an experienced exponent of the title role, and if his characterisation was insufficiently delineated, vocally he gave a robust and imposing performance. In all respects, however, he was outshone by Ruzan Mantashyan’s vivid Tatiana. The Armenian’s attractive creamy soprano met all the demands of the role: uninhibited passion for the innocent girl’s infatuation, but also delicate colours and phrasing for the introspective musings of a self-conscious outsider and, in due course, controlled, measured utterings when elevated socially as the wife of a noble.   Alexey Dolgov was a dramatically alert and passionate Lensky, his plangent tenor well suited to this archetypal Pushkin tragic lovelorn character. The celebrated bass Ildar Abdrazakov made much of Prince Gremin’s great aria and, as the carefree flirtatious Olga, Maria Barakova was a striking foil for Tatiana’s intensity.

It needed a strong ruling hand to draw the diverse musical components together and turn them into a coherent experience and it is a pleasure to report that for this task Liège had available its new superstar, conductor Speranza Scappucci.   She gave considerable impetus to the score, working the orchestra towards its various climaxes, but where appropriate holding back and lingering over thematic phrases, thus enhancing dramatic intensity. Undoubtedly she was the hero(ine) of the evening.

So far, so good. When it comes to Eric Vigié’s production, however, the matter is less straightforward. There is nothing wrong with his idea that the piece has much to say about the fragility of the Tsarist ancien regime and, as such, anticipates the Russian Revolution. The trite conventions absorbing family life on the landed estate, along with the codes of etiquette and honour, leading to the tragic duel can be seen in that light. At a pinch, also, Tatiana’s predicament, constraining the expression of individuality. Indeed, the perspective can help in explaining features of the opera’s early scenes which otherwise emerge as kitschy and embarrassing, but it is less clear that the idea is well served by imposing extraneous political images on the audience – for example, at the beginning video clips of the Revolution; and the Act Two ball becoming a display of military discipline and power – particularly when there is a failure at the end to bring together the political and personal dimensions. In short, Vigié’s dramatic interpretation lacked coherence. A pity because, in other respects, this was a stirring and satisfying operatic experience.