This being my first opera, I entered the Hackney Empire feeling somewhat apprehensive, but fortunately I was worrying over nothing. Not only is this production of Eugene Onegin for English Touring Opera surtitled and in English, but also it is as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in 1879, as it primarily concerns that universal and timeless theme: love.
Nicholas Lester certainly looked the part for the title role. His height was as powerful on stage as his voice. Add to this an air of nonchalance, and he made for a perfectly haughty, though nevertheless likeable, Onegin. Niamh Kelly was charming and very watchable in the role of Olga, Tatyana’s spirited sister, being lively and flirtatious without coming across as irritating. It goes without saying that the vocals were stunning all round, in particular those of Sarah-Jane Davies during Tatyana’s letter writing scene, although I felt her acting was somewhat lacklustre.
I found Joanna Parker’s simple set absolutely fascinating to look at, in particular the crucial set-piece – a huge angular mirror placed diagonally in the middle of the stage. This proved to be multifunctional – at times it was reflective, at others transparent and occasionally it was both at the same time. It was also used in the duel scene for a video projection of falling sheets of paper, whilst real pages littered the stage floor beneath.
Reflections worked well in the crowd scenes, making both the country ball and its Moscow counterpart more populated and bustling. They also enhanced emotional scenes such as the opening of the second act, with Lensky imagining Olga’s unhappiness if he were to die in the impending duel; or the final scene, as Onegin is filled with regret over past treatment of Tatyana. Although in both of these instances the characters had their backs to the audience, the mirror allowed for a kind of intimacy, permitting us to look in on private thoughts and emotions.
I particularly enjoyed the two balls. The country ball had it all – gossip, scandal, dancing, fisticuffs, jealousy, laughter and tears – while the Moscow ball in the second act was beautifully costumed – the white dresses and jewels worn by the ladies were especially captivating.
Bernadette Iglich choreographed the dances wonderfully, the cotillion in the country ball looked like such fun that it was no wonder Lensky was so enraged at Onegin for stealing his partner.
I wasn’t too sure about all the impassioned chair-throwing that went on in the final scene, when Tatyana rejects Onegin’s advances. Perhaps the hurling of one piece of furniture would have been acceptable but I was left wondering if there were going to be any chairs left standing by the end of the piece, when as many as five flew in all directions before the end of the show. This caused some unintentional laughter amongst the audience and I must admit it did make what should have been a tragic scene somewhat ridiculous,
Overall, it was a delightful evening and I shall always remember Eugene Onegin as the show that introduced me to the elegant world of opera.
Eugene Onegin is on tour with English Touring Opera. For more information on touring dates, see the English Touring Opera’s website.