The Director’s Chair: Richard Studer on Eugene Onegin (part 1)

As we move towards our opening night of our upcoming tour of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, we asked MWO’s creative director Richard Studer about his relationship with this extraordinary piece; often regarded as Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera, not only for the beguiling and hypnotic score but also for Tchaikovsky’s vivid, empathetic and ever-relevant dramatisation of Pushkin’s verse novel.

Like many before me, I came to Onegin via a circuitous route. To say it started with an advert for a Cadburys chocolate bar is no exaggeration (everyone’s a fruit and nutcase). This ubiquitous advert sung by Frank Muir burst onto the TV  with delightful insanity (and an unforgettable melody) way back in the mid 70s.

For many years Tchaikovsky’s music was piped (pun intended) into our living rooms and impressed a young flautist desperately trying to learn this snippet of Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s ballet music (in much-simplified versions) also cropped up regularly within the grade system for music exams as countless thousands of youngsters like myself bludgeoned their way through Tchaikovsky’s lyricism,  Indeed in the mid-eighties my best mate and I busked duets in the underpass outside Guildford Debenhams and one our most profitable numbers was Chris’s rendition of The Dying Swan, a welcome relief for the punters from our endless battering of the ballet suites arranged for flute and cello. Later on, when studying A-level music I went through a phase of driving around town in my red and white striped 2CV with the roof open and the Fifth Symphony blasting out from a tape deck nestled on the passenger’s seat next to the dog. Pretentious? Moi?!

To cut a long story short, when I first encountered Eugene Onegin it felt like I’d known this music all my life. I instantly engaged with the piece and though I have never truly understood why there was a railway track stridently crossing the stage in the party scene in  WNO’s production at the Bristol Hippodrome (my first live performance) I was transfixed. By this time I was in my early twenties and the same age as the students of the Moscow Conservatoire who premiered the piece in the Maly Theatre.

The Maly Theatre in the 1800s

A missed opportunity to direct Tchaikovsky’s ‘Queen of Spades’ (an opera that is forever eluding me) eventually led to a production of Onegin in Bristol – one of the very first operas I produced outside the safety of university.

This original production has remained with me over all subsequent performances and in MWO’s new production there are a few elements in the direction that remain from this original show, though in other aspects it has changed beyond recognition.

Like Onegin himself in the opening scene, I blustered into that first production with the certainty and arrogance of youth – this works fine to a degree but left me floundering as the opera progressed. Authors are encouraged by their mentors to write what they know in the first instance – good advice and equally true of directing. I found myself struggling with the latter scenes, I had not yet myself experienced that certainty of true love nor the desolation of rejection and loss that Pushkin conceived and Tchaikovsky scored.

This production for MWO will be my fourth and each time I find it easier to connect to the opera and its inhabitants and I am quite sure that it will remain an opera that develops with me as I age – perhaps one day in my dotage I shall direct it through the eyes of Tatyana’s elderly nurse, Filipyevna, a character who has seen it all before in her life,  and at that point I shall know I am done with the piece.

At the heart of Onegin are two great journeys: Tatyana’s where we witness her progressing and moving on from the idealised and overtly romanticised love of the opening scenes to the acceptance of her life as what it is and what it will be. Tatyana learns that it is not possible to travel back in time to recapture that fire of youth, the moment is passed and for her there is no going back, and so she ultimately rejects Onegin’s love in the final scene.

Onegin’s journey is in many ways more dramatic than Tatyana’s : a callow youth bored by his dying uncles predicament, the flippancy of his rejection of the ‘simple’ country girl, the arrogance of his behaviour that led to the death of his best friend; and the final realisation that he has lost through his actions all that he desired. But unlike Tatyana’s,  Onegin’s journey is unresolved and indeed has barely started. The opera ends with him trapped between the immaturity of his youth and the adult he could/should have become. As the curtain closes we are left with a manchild stuck in an eternal limbo through the actions of his past. No matter what age I am when I direct this piece for the final time, no matter what journeys lie ahead in my own life I am sure of one thing – that there is nothing I can do to help our protagonist. Onegin will never find happiness, his journey has been stopped in its tracks for eternity with the closing chords of Tchaikovsky’s score – perhaps that was the symbolism inherent within WNO’s set at Bristol Hippodrome.

Read Part 2

See all dates for our Spring Tour of Eugene Onegin

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