These are the books her mother read too, finding in fiction the romance that eluded her in a life shaped instead by duty and routine. Tatyana wants more: falling for the sophisticated friend of her sister's fiancé, life and literature collide disastrously.
In Julia Burbach's new production, much is made of Tatyana's bookishness – she even 'writes' some of the opening scenes herself, arranging the peasants' chorus like puppets.
Tatyana's birthday party. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
This notion cannot be sustained as Tatyana falls headlong for aloof Eugene Onegin. She writes to him a passionate letter, and suffers a humiliating putdown. No wonder she is embarrassed when he whisks her enthusiastically from room to room in the boisterous dances at her birthday party (choreography by Jo Meredith). When he finds a more willing partner in her sister Olga, her fiancé Lensky is understandably distraught.
These four characters are at the heart of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. British-Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan sings Tatyana with all the unrestrained passion of a lovesick teenager, maturing in the last act into a dignified princess. Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson's exceptionally haughty Onegin has furthest to fall as he recognises his missed chance with Tatyana.
Most affecting is the Lensky of tenor Thomas Atkins, not a weedy poet and reluctant combatant, as often portrayed, but a determined defender of the honour of Olga, sung by mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard. The show-stopping aria by bass Matthew Stiff as the older Tatyana's husband Prince Gremin is as affecting as her mother's admissions of past disappointments – Amanda Roocroft is an elegant Madame Larina.
Samuel Dale Johnson sings the title role in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Ali Wright
The vision of Onegin is often on stage, an embodiment of what's in a character's mind. This detracts from key numbers – he hangs around Tatyana's famous letter scene, makes love to her during Gremin's big number, and listens in to Lensky's private thoughts – and although Samuel Dale Johnson carries off these hauntings with aplomb, they undermine the music. The duel is a curious affair, which could confuse newcomers to the opera.
Opera Holland Park's apron stage sometimes forces singers unnaturally far upstage or downstage on a runway that wraps round the orchestra. Occasionally the music fractures, and the very slow tempi chosen by conductor Lada Valešová can stretch it to the limit too. But the City of London Sinfonia, defying the cold with some lovely woodwind playing, and the all-important Opera Holland Park Chorus, commenting on the action, are magnificent.
Design by takis takes us into the 1820s of Alexander Pushkin's original story, with graceful panelled rooms and handsome gowns, cutaway jackets and dashing long boots. The party and ball scenes are just the sort of gorgeous affair to relish after a time of limitations, and it's not every day you get to see a game of badminton on stage – the sport was newly fashionable.
Thomas Atkins sings Lensky with depth and passion. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
Originally scheduled for the doomed 2020 season, and with most of its cast unchanged, this is a Eugene Onegin worth the wait in many ways, not least for the outstanding singing by all the male soloists and its sumptuous appearance. It opens the season that continues on 3 June with Bizet's Carmen. And you can get a taste for everything on offer at Friday lunchtime Songs on the Steps.
Eugene Onegin is sung in Russian, with English surtitles. Further performances are on 3, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25 June. Those on 13 and 23 are Young Artist Performances. There is a relaxed performance on 19 June
|What||Eugene Onegin, Opera Holland Park review|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
31 May 22 – 25 Jun 22, 11 performances, including an interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|