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Eugene Onegin – The Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Music &Libretto: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Director: Richard Studer
Translation: David Lloyd-Jones
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

Doyen of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, wrote the verse novel which forms the basis for Tchaikovsky’s lyrical operatic masterpiece Eugene Onegin. A love story running the gamut of emotions, it tells of the ill-fated love between the innocent country girl Tatyana and the worldly Eugene Onegin. It is love at first sight for Tatyana, who writes a passionate letter to Onegin declaring her love for him. He rejects her, informing her that he would soon grow bored with country life. Meanwhile, Onegin’s friend Lensky is enjoying a romance with Tatyana’s sister Olga. At Tatyana’s birthday party a bored Onegin flirts with Olga, causing a jealous Lensky to challenge him to a duel. The duel takes place, and Lensky dies. Years later, at a St Petersburg ball, Onegin meets up again with Tatyana, now a beautiful and self-assured woman, and married to a prince. At last Onegin realises that he is in love with her – but it is too late. Tatyana still loves him – but she will not allow him to ruin her life. She leaves Onegin to his regrets.

Perhaps one of the most challenging of all operas, with the diversity of its thematic content, this three-hour long opera is, without doubt, a brave undertaking for a small scale company such as Opera Project. Grand opera – and Onegin is one of Tchaikovsky’s grandest – demands grandeur in its setting, and this the Tobacco Factory Theatre is not able to provide. All the more credit then to director/designer Richard Studer and his multi-talented company who prove themselves able to deliver the goods within the confines of a small theatre with a low ceiling (not ideal for operatic arias) and a basic setting in the round.

Scottish soprano, Lee Bisset, has a voice of purity and clarity, admirably suited to the rôle of Tatyana. Bisset, however, does not quite capture the freshness and innocence that the rôle demands, leaning rather towards the gaucheness of an awkward teenager. This is counter-balanced by the way in which she comes into her own in the final act, with a display of maturity and roundness that presents as a diva in the making.

In the title rôle of Onegin, Australian Grant Doyle’s rich and mellifluous baritone is a pleasure to listen to as always. Although in the earlier scenes he fails to project with the hauteur that the rôle demands, Doyle settles into the part and shows an understanding of the character which he brings out to the full in the tormented passion of Onegin’s ultimate realisation and declaration of his love for Tatyana, and his bitterness as he finally realises it cannot be.

As the poet Lensky, Michael Bracegirdle is, quite simply, superb. This is a most welcome return by Bracegirdle to the Tobacco Factory Theatre, where he sang Cavaradossi for Diva Opera four years ago. His singing, both in his solo arias and his duet with Doyle, as well as the difficult quartet, has with it a rare depth and sympathy, displaying an almost tangible belief in the part. As Olga, the delightful Stephanie Lewis provides the perfect foil.

Conductor Jonathan Lyness coaxes the magic of Tchaikovsky’s music from a small orchestra of just twelve players, including fine harpist Kate Watt.

Runs until 27th October 2012.

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