Eugene Onegin – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Robin Norton-Hale
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Director: Lucy Bradley
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Dedication to detail and a commitment to creative re-invention have marked out OperaUpClose’s productions over the last few years. The trait continues here – tackling Tchaikovsky’s grand-scale take on a Pushkin story.

Robin Norton-Hale’s new version nips, tucks and tailors the original, leaving behind the essence of the story with a few new angles. We miss the scale and weighty impact of a full production, but there’s a lot there to entertain. With a newly devised orchestration by Alison Holford and James Widden (simplifying and focusing a full orchestra to a four-piece ensemble of cello, piano, clarinet and violin) the refreshed story matches well with the lighter accompaniment – playful when needed and a full-throated back-up when the story slips into darker territory.

In this re-write, Tatyana (Tanya) is a schoolgirl, spending her time reading and studying for the exams she hops will be a ticket out of the curtain-twitching environment her 1960 English suburb. The world we see is full of women, gossiping housewives mainly, and her clear desire to be something other than that comes through. The arrival of her sister’s suitor, Lensky, and his friend Onegin changes things forever – while the two men bring violence and shame into her world, she finds strength from the bruising encounter and builds a life of independence.

A more modern, relatable (and, actually, inspiring) take than a young lady in an aristocratic and courtly life, but the themes of ambition and love of an unsuitable partner remain. Soprano Lucy Hall (role is also played by Josephine Thorpe on other evenings) portrays the changing nature of Tanya’s character with charisma and powerfully emotive voice – her “letter” scene is absolutely the highlight of the production. Surrounded by a cast of superb, rich vocalists (Felix Kemp as Onegin and Anthony Flaum as Lensky create a fantastic duo, playing off each other physically as well as with completely complementary vocals) the story of Tanya growing to independence is well rendered.

It’s a rich, beautifully performed production. Engaging, personal and relatable, a quality with goes a long way towards making up for the missing scale of the original.

Runs until 23 December 2017 then tours | Image: Andreas Grieger

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