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Hannah Pedley, Anna Leese and Mark Stone in Eugene Onegin Photo: FRITZ CURZON

Holland Park Opera: Tchaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin and Verdi, Falstaff

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a very dull play indeed. We can be grateful for its having been written, because it provided the occasion of Verdi’s Falstaff, a very great operatic masterpiece … I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play, so let’s hear Verdi.’

Auden’s summary dismissal of Shakespeare’s play in the middle of his 1947 course of lectures at the New School in Greenwich Village is a bit naughty but it would have been hard to disagree with him entirely as he set the gramophone to work. The Merry Wives is indeed pretty feeble. Yet, with the odd alchemy that occasionally comes off when art that is not much good in one form becomes magical in another – like Schubert’s haunting Winterreise bursting out from Müller’s mediocre poems – Falstaff is certainly a masterpiece. And it is so on many levels.

Its dramatic concision is remarkable, courtesy of Boito’s superb reworking of Shakespeare’s play and his inclusion in the libretto of material from the fabulous Henry IV plays. The music, meanwhile, marks a real moment of innovation in the history of opera, despite the fact that Verdi was almost eighty at its premiere. The remarkable score with its alluring woodwind achieves incredibly subtle and unexpected changes in tone, the most interesting of which augment the figure at the heart of the piece – Falstaff himself. In Verdi’s hands, he is the distillate of Shakespeare’s great comic creation – the jokes even louder and the sense of the absurd still stronger than in the original – but there is more than this.

Adopted from the first of the Henry plays, the aria L’Onore! Ladri! lends Falstaff’s obvious foibles an unmistakable grandeur: we love him because he has our own failings, on a grand scale. This is combined with a real sense of pathos at the opening of Act Three, when there is a moment of incipient tragedy at his sudden contemplation of the inevitable end of it all. Here is a man who has embraced the toughness of getting on with life amid an awareness that a superfluous, class-based pomposity seems to make things happen, and who sees through it all before setting to the next trick with the learned artistry of the true mountebank.

Olufar Sigurdarson was a magnificent lead in Annilese Miskimmon’s Falstaff. Energetic and charismatic, he was by turns charming and cruel. He held together a production that was otherwise rather lacking in ideas. The conceit initially was that we were back in the aftermath of the Great War, with decorated heroes returned in pieces to an England not quite swept away by its horrors. Ford, transformed into the uptight local vicar, worked well enough – sung carefully, though without much concession to Verdi’s phrasing, by George van Bergen. The merry wives were organising a local fete for the WI, and Carolyn Dobbin as Meg was especially good. The design of the set, however, with its gestures towards a hunting-shooting-fishing world of ‘ye olde’ pubs and heritage Britain, felt almost as hackneyed as the moth-eaten stuffed hare hanging above Falstaff’s head as he contemplated his next move early on. Perhaps this sense of jaded national identity was intended. It fell apart gradually, though, as the opera progressed – the sense of tiredness on the home front wearing ever thinner. The final act in particular was a disorganised spectacle. Nonetheless, the production as a whole had considerable energy, driven along at high tempo by Peter Robinson.

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Daniel Slater’s new production of Yevgeny Onegin had more obvious ambition about it and, while not entirely successful, there was much to praise. Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is one of the very rarest things in all of art – a composition that creates something utterly wonderful out of the materials of a work of undisputed genius, without either trampling upon the original or simply rehashing it. To consider it alongside Falstaff is to be all the more dazzled by the achievement.

Pushkin’s poem is a product of European Romanticism. Heavily indebted to Byron and especially his Don Juan, it nevertheless eclipses that work with its far richer comic range. Moments in the poem are painful because of their irony, and the detachment of the narrator is more poised than Byron could manage, for all his swagger. In Tchaikovsky’s hands, however, the material changes almost entirely and the emotional tone is darker and more intense, full of both yearning nostalgia and Romantic lushness. The composer’s decision to adapt the work into separate scenes capitalised at once on the poem’s universal popularity and also enabled him to avoid a wholesale reworking of its narrative, condensing it instead into a sequence of emotional snapshots. It is a broken history of changes in affect, all the more haunting because the overarching narrative is shattered.

Slater chose to update the piece so that the action falls on either side of the Russian Revolution. The opera opens in a Chekovian world teetering on the edge of collapse. Indeed, Leslie Travers’s impressive set has the ruins of imperial Russia thrown around it, prefiguring what is to come. Mark Stone’s rather brilliant Onegin stalks around the scene in a detached, Byronic manner, somewhat reminiscent of a youthful Orson Welles. The death of Lensky, sung carefully by Peter Auty, is mirrored by the fall of his entire officer class who collapse simultaneously. When Monsieur Triquet is dragged out reluctantly to serenade Tatyana on her name day he is a drunken revolutionary whose beautiful aria is played for every possible ounce of comic potential by Gareth Dafydd Morris.

There are problems with updating the piece in this way, however. For one thing, there is so much going on in the opera in terms of its shifts in emotion that it does not particularly benefit from having the enormous tragedy of later history thrust on to smother it. What’s more, the production fails to convey the acute psychological shift that is present as the action moves from the country back to the city in Act Three. Instead, this is transformed into a shift from the broken feudalism of pre-revolutionary Russia to the inhuman nastiness of early Communism with Tatyana (Anna Leese) now the dowdy wife of a party apparatchik. She is quite unlike the charming woman who sang the Letter Scene so well but the change is wrong – she should be the epitome of glamour and not a party wife from whom Onegin hopes to get a leg up.

Both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky were acutely aware of the subtle stratifications of Russian society and it is amid these that Onegin finds his comeuppance. As Slater’s production has it, the whole thing makes no sense. One particular casualty of the transformation is Prince Gremin, whose marvellous aria in praise of Tatyana, though well sung by Graeme Broadbent, is now delivered as an arid political speech. This should rather be a moment of exquisite irony as Onegin is pinned to the spot. It speaks to the hopeful in all of us about the possible redemption that is brought about by unexpected love late in life. If it has a rival in the opera then it is surely Lensky’s magnificent aria on the eve of his death, which mourns the lost potential of youth. Between the two, the vagaries of male identity are laid bare.

The 2012 season of Opera Holland Park has now concluded. Visit www.operahollandpark.com for information on the 2013 season.