Aotea Centre; St James Theatre
Sept 17-26; October 10-17 | Reviewed by Samuel Holloway

BASED on the novel by Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1878) is the story of Tatyana Larina, whose impulsive love letter to the urbane and aloof Onegin is rejected. In time, Onegin grows to regret his dismissal of Tatyana (and the killing of his best friend Lensky in a duel). But in the end Tatyana – despite an enduring love – rebuffs his pleading, and Onegin is left in despair.

It is a story that seems tailor-made for the spectacle that is Opera. Yet, for all that dramatic potential, Eugene Onegin is curiously unaffecting. The titular character, described by Tchaikovsky himself as ‘a cold dandy’, does little to garner our sympathy, even as he makes a despairing final attempt to win Tatyana in the final scene. But in spite of the work’s dramatic flaws, New Zealand Opera’s current production is utterly compelling, not least because of the very fine singing of Tchaikovsky’s universally appealing music.

The unlikable role of Onegin was played well by William Dazeley, a particularly versatile singer who has performed many of the great operatic roles and in many challenging contemporary concert works. An astute choice for the difficult character, Dazeley was particularly strong in the dramatic closing scene, but was outshone by the Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff playing Lensky, whose regret-filled Act Two aria is one of the work’s musical highlights.

The character at the heart of the opera is Tatyana, played in this production by rising star Anna Leese. Leese, a young New Zealander now based in London, demonstrated incredible presence and dramatic ability in this role, most notably in the famous scene where Tatyana pens her letter to Onegin. Leese portrayed both the youthful impetuousness of an adolescent and the poise of the older Tatyana with ease.

While the cast were uniformly excellent, there were two smaller roles that drew performances of special note: the comic Monsieur Triquet, played with goofy charm by Andrew Glover, and Tatyana’s eventual husband Prince Gremin, movingly sung by Martin Snell in the finest performance of the evening.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra were superb in their supporting role, under the baton of Russian Conductor Alexander Polianichko, who works regularly at Moscow’s Mariinksy Theatre and with a formidable range of opera companies. The Orchestra’s playing has been particularly disciplined of late, and this performance was especially fine. Similarly, the large chorus provided faultless support as well as demonstrating significant acting and dancing ability throughout, most notably during the complex choreographic sequence (involving chairs) that opened the third Act. Choreographer Timothy Gordon is to be applauded for this unconventional but successful touch.

Bland costuming aside, the opera was visually striking. Sophisticated lighting design by Bernie Tan supported the sets by Genevieve Blanchett, which ranged from spacious landscapes to bleak Moscovian architecture. Opera is a complex amalgam, and in this production Australian director Patrick Nolan has brought the musical, theatrical and visual elements together with tremendous imagination.