The Grimeborn opera season at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston continues with a re-imagined version of Eugene Onegin, devised by Guido Martin-Brandis. The original opera is stripped down to the relationship between Eugene and Tatiana – these parts are sung but, to help us understand what is happening, we have a narrator who tells the story but who also on occasion speaks as Tatiana’s nurse or as Prince Gremin. Martin-Brandis also introduces music from other sources including a duet from Strauss’ Arabella and songs from Mahler and Rachmaninov. The result is an interesting but uneven piece that sometimes catches the mood of regret and yearning that suffuses Tchaikovsky’s original but sometimes seems to lose focus and narrative coherence.
Tatiana is a dreamy and bookish teenager. Trapped in a rural backwater she falls for the haughty Onegin and impetuously sends him a letter declaring her love. The next day he coldly tells her he is not the marrying kind and she is mortified. The narrator then tells us that to combat his deep boredom he indulges in flirtations and provokes quarrels with neighbours and that this culminates in a duel in which he kills his friend, Lensky. After six years of self-imposed exile he meets and falls in love with the woman he once rejected. But she is now married and determined to honour her marriage vows.
Isolde Roxby as Tatiana and Nick Dwyer as Onegin produce admirable performances. Roxby manages the demands of the famous letter scene with warm tones and a real understanding of the emotional torment that leads Tatiana to take such an unconventional step. Dwyer is spot on as the arrogant young man and delivers his gentle rebuke to Tatiana with a nice mix of pomposity and concern for her naivety – he is less convincing as the obsessive lover of the St Petersburg scenes. For both singers, the strain of finding ways to sing emotionally demanding and technically difficult music quietly – quietly enough not to overwhelm the audience packed into the basement studio at the Arcola Theatre – leads to some lapses of musical accuracy as the evening progresses. And the final tragic scene is not quite the cathartic moment it should be. Joan Plunkett is a calm and authoritative narrator and a sympathetic nurse but her momentary impersonation of Prince Gremin is disconcerting. Richard Hall, in costume, plays the music on a small and less than ideal piano and, for all his obvious expertise, one misses the richness of Tchaikovsky’s incomparable orchestral score. The additional songs are beautifully sung but – despite the director’s intentions expressed in his programme notes – they add little that illuminates the inner worlds of Eugene and Tatiana
The story telling is supported by the use of three screens onto which old fashioned overhead projectors focus pictures and words, sometimes taking the place of conventional surtitles. The singers and the narrator place and replace the transparent sheets on the OHPs – this becomes distracting as the opera develops, especially near the end when the sung dialogue of the final confrontation between the protagonists could do with a slicker presentation.
Even with these imperfections the production does provide an absorbing and effective introduction to one of the great romantic operas and the power of all four performances, enhanced by being delivered in such an intimate setting, is more than enough to make this another Grimeborn success.