The annual Grimeborn opera festival has returned. Keen opera and fringe fans can see and hear new works at the Arcola Theatre. This week – for a two-day showing only – is a new production, Onegin and Tatiana, inspired by the Tchaikovsky’s masterwork opera Eugene Onegin.
Its director Guido Martin-Brandis demonstrates the personal and significant influence the composer’s life had on the opera by wrapping the tragic tale in the philosophical and literary movement of the 19th-century. But, Martin-Brandis’s production takes it a step further and unifies the tragic tale of unrequited love with music composed by Mahler, Debussy, Strauss and Rachmaninov.
In less than two hours – without an interval – the Arcola studio becomes an intimate space that transforms into an open book filled with heart-rending emotions: romance, anguish, rejection and purity of sound. Richard Hall’s superb piano performance sets the delicate and melancholic tone of the work, which includes German operatic song (lieder) and segments from Russian arias and poems. Those in the audience are not left astray, though. Martin-Brandis utilises projectors as theatrical devices to project English words, surtitles, picture frames and scenic images to allow our heroine’s dream world to flourish.
Throughout the performance Joan Plunkett illuminates the love tale by articulately narrating each scene as they begins, which is palatable for newbies of the opera. Her storytelling is comforting and reminiscent of a being read children’s novels to at a very young age. Her description of the lethargic and lifeless Onegin is particularly evocative, too.
Originally based off the 19th-century Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel, Tchaikovsky fashioned his opera on aspects of memory and nostalgia, and the use of projectors explicitly enhances that. It represents the abstract and mental projections Tatiana and Onegin have of Russian society as well as themselves.
There’s a mildly slow and graceful pace to the production to reiterate the tender mood of the score. Lighting designer Edmund Sutton restricts the brightness of the studio for a subtle blend of ambient lighting, mostly limited to a glowing book Tatiana often reads and Martin-Brandis’s fixed projectors. Alexander McPherson colours the stage with autumn hues, adding a vintage table and large carpet to signify notes of Russian high society. Yet McPherson’s custom-made 1800’s costumes for Plunkett’s storyteller, Tatiana and Onegin are delightfully handsome, realistic and precise.
The production removes some sections from Pushkin’s original tale. Instead of a grand introduction with a larger cast to present neighbours and Tatiana’s family, we immediately meet Tatiana as the hopeful girl in love with the heroes of her favourite books. She meets the attractive Onegin and already knows she has fallen for him and, almost, instantly begins to write her love letter to him. Yet, his rejection of Tatiana’s love is heartbreaking.
Isolde Roxby has an absolutely stunning voice and gives a wonderful performance encapsulating every part of Tatiana’s innocence and delicate suffering. In the Letter Scene, her performance is filled with sorrow and fragility. This contrasts with the final scenes where Roxby’s Tatiana is married to another, grown-up, composed and unshakeable. Her voice soars as she tells Onegin to leave her alone; it’s too late to ask for her forgiveness, let alone her hand in marriage.
Baritone Nicolas Dwyer vocally propels the emotionally detached Onegin, unmoved by anything – not even a six-month vacation away – in the beginning scenes. Yet, he reveals the reflective and regretful Onegin in the final act with a heavy heart, giving an unrestrained and virtuosic performance – vocally unleashing bursts of pain, which deeply affect the audience. (Seriously, you can feel it in the studio!)
There were a couple of minor issues with the projector slides, but that didn’t detract the audience from the wider flow of the performance. With only four members in the cast, they managed to encapsulate the feelings, characters, and musical splendour all at once. The complexity of Tchaikovsky’s past domestic situation manifests itself in his music.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a finer production that manages to seize woeful and despairing music without making others feel the need to leave the room. One walks away with a pleasure-pain relationship with the production, yet the musical pleasure wins the most.
Onegin and Tatiana is showing at the Arcola Theatre today Wednesday 14 August. For more information on the Grimeborn Festival, go here.
I was provided a press ticket to review the show