The splendid OperaUpClose team has come up with another reworked version of an operatic classic – and it is a triumph. The story of boredom, infatuation, and jealousy has been shifted from rural Russia in the nineteenth century to 1960s London suburbia and it makes absolute sense. Tatyana and her sister Olga live in a staid all-female household. Olga’s older boyfriend Lensky introduces his friend Onegin into the family, the naïve bookworm Tatyana snogs him and immediately she fancies herself to be in love. Onegin rejects her and, although he is aloof rather than brutal, she is humiliated. Then at Tatyana’s birthday party, Onegin’s provocative behaviour leads to a row with Lensky and it escalates out of control into a senseless tragedy. The final scene set at a book launch in central London seven years later leads to a climactic confrontation between Tatyana and Onegin.
The young cast assembled for this performance of the opera (please note that there are two alternating casts) is, without exception, excellent. Lucy Hall as Tatyana sang with style and with a sure touch for the moments of pathos. She was convincing both as a suburban schoolgirl and as a new author. Felix Kemp has a strong and melodious baritone voice and was certainly attractive enough to explain Tatyana’s infatuation. Anthony Flaum was a splendid Lensky and made the most of his heart breaking soliloquy before the fight – it is worth saying that Flaum, and indeed all the singers, have mastered the difficult technique of using all their expressive vocal power but at a restrained volume that suits the space at the Arcola. Felicity Buckland was a superb Olga. In a role that sometimes gets lost in the shadow of the passion of her sister for Onegin, she sang with a gorgeous fresh tone and flirted with convincing charm. Pity there was no room for a Prince Gremin but the revised versions of Triquet and Filipyevna just about made up for this loss. I wish I had space to praise all of the other singers individually.
As ever with stripped down versions like this there are things lost – the four piece band under the direction of Sonia Ben-Santamaria is excellent but cannot recreate the sumptuous sound of Tchaikovsky’s big set pieces. And the duel scene doesn’t quite ring true – I don’t think the fake snow was wise except perhaps as a sardonic tribute to the original Russian setting. But other things are enhanced – the replacement of the peasants’ harvest chorus with a chorus for six women’s voices works brilliantly. And the central idea that Tatyana rejects Onegin not to protect a dreary marriage but to preserve her freedom as a creative writer and an independent woman is a brilliant coup. This is a top quality addition to the OperaUpClose repertoire and I hope it is enjoyed by full houses in London before it begins touring – it is already listed for performances in Shrewsbury, Harrogate, and Crawley next year.