United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera, Northcott Theatre, Exeter, 21.3.2012 (BK)
Conductor – Michael Rosewell
Director – James Conway
Designer – Joanna Parker
Lighting Designer – Guy Hoare
Choreographer – Bernadette Iglich
Larina – Harriet Williams
Tatyana – Sarah-Jane Davies
Olga – Niamh Kelly
Filipyevna – Frances McCafferty
Lensky – Jaewoo Kim
Onegin – Nicholas Lester
Triquet – Andrew Glover
Zaretsky – Cozmin Sime
Gremin – Stephen Holloway
Peasant Leader – Adam Tunnicliffe
Captain – Brendan Collins
Minimalism is always the name of the game for English Touring Opera by definition, and James Conway’s 2007 Onegin provides a text-book example of the genre at its best. Using nothing by way of scenery other than a huge carefully lit mirror hung at an angle across the stage, as both a window and a screen, the setting cleverly represents both the action’s external settings and the opera’s characters’ moods remarkably effectively. Adding in some stylised apple trees and windfalls, a bed and a few chairs to Joanna Parker’s elegant period costume designs, makes for a mise-en-scène that puts many more elaborate stagings to shame. This a perfect demonstration of high-quality travelling opera, for which the entire production team should be congratulated.
So it is too with the musical direction and the singing. Michael Rosewell and the small ETO orchestra tautly conveyed the lushness of a full orchestral sound with skilful use of the forces available. Their timing was never anything but excellent and provided, as it should, the driving force behind the unfolding tragedy
Of the principal singers, Niamh Kelly impressed with the accuracy and warmth of her voice, in conjunction with her ability to convey the charm and vivacity of the young Olga. Sarah-Jane Davies made a suitably demure Tatyana and, although her voice is not as weighty as some in this role, she nevertheless delivered a convincing performance throughout
Lensky, played by Jaewoo Kim, was perhaps a little too forthright for this very young poet, but this is a minor criticism of a fine singer. His friend Onegin, Nicholas Lester, was played with perhaps too little flexibility – the coldness of the character came through, but perhaps not his eventual passion: or even his pseudo – passion, because as Tatyana points out in the final scene, we can never tell if the character really feels anything deeper than a superficial tantrum. Better direction might have helped here too, since throwing chairs about as this Onegin does quite often, rarely conveys true torment of the soul. Mr Lester, however, has a fine rich vocal tone and is well worth hearing.
To round off this impressive ensemble, among the other characters Andrew Glover as M. Triquet was outstanding and veterans Frances McCafferty (Filipyevna) and Stephen Holloway (Gremin) both offered stalwart performances – as did Harriet Williams as Mme Larina.
To my mind, the only way in which the production might have been improved would be to have placed just a little more emphasis on the extreme youth of the major characters. In Pushkin’s poem, Lensky is supposed to be 18, while Onegin is 23, with the girls correspondingly young and it’s with these facts in mind that the whole story is best illuminated. Why does Onegin kill his friend? Simply because he’s a a young, rich pretentious brat who has no idea of how to be a real person. And why is Lensky such a spineless idiot, especially towards Olga? Because he’s 18 and in the grip of a delusional view of himself as a great poet. And so on, and so on. Many of us will have been there too one way or another, I suspect.
And finally, just out of curiosity I’d dearly like to find out why everyone in the opening scene looks so sorrowful when gathering up a really a good crop of apples. Peasant and aristocrat alike gazes pensively at the fruit, apparently overtaken with a heartfelt grief which is hard to comprehend. Are we meant to see the serpent coiled amidst the cider harvest, lying in wait for the unsuspecting? Or when Onegin takes an unconsidered bite from one of the apples (obviously not having been told to approach it with the necessary awe) are we to see him as the serpent itself or as an Adam deceived by the eternal Eve?
Quibbles apart though, his was an excellent Onegin, well up to the high standards we have come to expect from English Touring Opera. Highly recommended, if you are lucky enough to be able to get a ticket.
Details of the rest of the company’s Spring 2012 tour are available from the website: English Touring Opera.Org