The week in classical: Eugene Onegin; Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic – review

Theatre Royal, Glasgow; Barbican, London
Onegin’s incontinent horse can’t upstage Natalya Romaniw’s dazzling Tatyana. And LA Phil provide more bangs for your bucks

That laudable desire to bring something novel and arresting to a new production can sometimes backfire spectacularly on a director, as Oliver Mears found out in graphic form last week. Before he took up his current post as director of opera at Covent Garden, Mears had agreed to direct Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for Scottish Opera. Here was an opportunity to breathe new life into a familiar piece and to devise some memorable coup de théâtre.

Memorable indeed was Mears’s decision to emphasise the haughty disdain of the eponymous character by having him appear on a magnificent black horse, first in a tableau, like a fine equestrian portrait, and then in the flesh, riding fully on to the stage and into the life of the young, dazzled Tatyana. But on opening night, just as Onegin was dismounting centre stage, the horse lifted his tail and did what horses do, generously presenting the cast with copious quantities of steaming, top-quality manure for their roses. Cue hearty laughter from the audience and hasty work with bucket and shovel.

Naturally, it took a while for things to settle after this, cast cautiously avoiding the spot where the deed was done and audience anxious that none of the dancers skidded into the pit, despite the best efforts of the clean-up man.

It had all started so well. Into the faded grandeur of an elegant Russian drawing room steps Tatyana – not the impressionable Tatyana of the opera but her older self, returning to recall the time her impetuous declaration of love for Onegin was so coldly rejected. This silent, if occasionally distracting, extra character stays on stage throughout, ghost-like, watching her life unfold, helpless to intervene.

Other ideas are not so successful. Putting the excellent chorus behind a gauze and restricting them to stylised movement may be necessary for small touring stages but Tchaikovsky gives them a series of wonderful dances, bucolic, domestic and grand, during which they frustratingly stay rooted to the spot, condemned to watch the principals do the capering.

Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson is a commanding presence as Onegin, his impressive physique put under the spotlight in another innovative tableau, this time stepping naked from his bath in Tatyana’s feverish imagining. Once free of his wayward horse, he sings with commendable assurance and an even, creamy tone. His friend, the poet Lensky (tenor Peter Auty), was not so fortunate on opening night. with precious little cantabile and an unconvincing upper register. He hardly deserved his betrothed, Olga, scintillatingly sung by mezzo Sioned Gwen Davies.

Shining above everybody was Natalya Romaniw, reprising a Tatyana that so impressed at Welsh National Opera and Garsington, performances that won her a Critics’ Circle award (presented that night in Glasgow) and a nomination in the International Opera awards. This is a standout portrayal, from hurt innocence to steely resolve, sung with rare musicality and touching fragility. Don’t miss her when she sings Mimì in a revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème at English National Opera later this year.

There were some ragged ensemble moments on opening night but conductor Stuart Stratford will surely iron those out when this tours to Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Belfast. It’s worth seeing; just stand clear of the horse.

‘Not so much music as pure energy’: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, at London’s Barbican.
‘Not so much music as pure energy’: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, at London’s Barbican. Photograph: Mark Allan / Barbican

Gustavo Dudamel and his Los Angeles Philharmonic blew into London last week with an ear-splitting bang. In fact, several ear-splitting bangs. In the opening concert of a three-day residence at the Barbican they pummelled their audience with Edgard Varèse’s Amèriques, his joyously visceral response to settling in the US after the first world war. Here is a great roaring, rumbling, brash and confident city in sound; police sirens wail, traffic grumbles, riveters swing their hammers, foghorns sound on the river. Varèse had been at the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris and here is its metropolitan equivalent, not so much music as pure energy, frightening and exhilarating in the hands of this great orchestra.

They opened in calmer mode with a Barbican commission, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pollux, a gleaming, thickly textured single-movement work, genetically linked to Castor, a companion piece yet to come. Pollux opens with a leaping theme in the double basses (drawn, apparently, from the bassline of a track from a post-grunge band) overlaid with a carpet of lush strings and sparkling percussion. Choirs of woodwind burble amiably and a strident march-like figure twice attempts to take control, but serenity has the last word as a cor anglais solo brings the music to an ecstatic close.

The decibel levels swung back up again with Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, but not before the exceptional strings of this orchestra gave a masterclass in controlled unison playing in the spare lines that open and close its first movement. There is such committed playing here, producing a deliciously rich, well-padded sound. Dudamel gave a vital urgency to the unhinged waltz of the allegretto before taking our breath away with the breakneck speed of the gloriously ambiguous finale. Technicolor was born in Hollywood; now the LA Phil has the patent on its aural equivalent.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Eugene Onegin ★★★★
Gustavo Dudamel and His Los Angeles Philharmonic ★★★★★

• Eugene Onegin is touring until 30 June


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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