YVONNE LYSANDROU measures the strengths and weaknesses in an intimate version of Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous opera Eugene Onegin
I’VE seen quite a few productions of Eugene Onegin in my time but never one as unusual as this one by OperaUpClose.
Its small ensemble of singers and musicians present scaled-down versions of famous operas in small venues, where the singers blast out arias literally inches away from the audience and, in keeping with this aim of promoting such intimate experiences, the Arcola is an ideal venue.
Robin Norton-Hale, the company’s artistic director, has translated Tchaikovsky’s version of Pushkin’s Onegin into colloquial English with a distinctly feminist slant. Tatyana may have loved and lost but in this production she does not find refuge with a older aristocrat but rather finds strength in pursuing a writing career.
Lucy Hall makes a convincing Tatyana and, with a fine soprano voice, does justice to Tchaikovsky’s famous letter-writing scene in which she declares her love for Onegin (Felix Kemp). The latter looks the part and sings with feeling but it is Anthony Flaum as Lensky whose voice makes us all sit up.
Yet much is lost in this reductionist version, transposed from 19th-century Russia to 1960s suburbia. A piano, violin cello and clarinet simply cannot match Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestration although Sonia Ben-Santamaria, conducting from the keyboard, and the accompanying musicians do a formidable job.
A greater problem is that the translation reduces the conflicted and often satirical story to a prosaic dilemma that has more in common with a storyline in 1960s teen magazine Jackie than with Pushkin’s literary classic. Perhaps Onegin is not so well suited to the pared-down up-close experience as previous OUC productions such as La Boheme.
But Norton-Hale is achieving great things with her opera for the people. Her company is extending into education and participation workshops, with the aim of bringing in audiences who have never been to the theatre before.
Of particular importance is that they are planning to do more work with young people over the next few years, including staging their first opera for junior school children.
Any review of Onegin — this one included — will inevitably cast a comparative and critical eye on the production but that in no way detracts from the overall artistic vision and achievement of Norton-Hall and her team.