Blackheath Community Opera – Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin – Lyric scenes in three acts to a libretto by the composer and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky after Pushkin’s verse novel [sung in David Lloyd-Jones’s English translation]

Tatyana – Kate Valentine
Olga – Katie Slater*
Larina – Harriet Williams
Filipyevna – Linda Hibberd
Onegin – Damian Thantrey
Lensky – Nicholas Sharratt
Gremin – Andrew Greenan
Triquet – Panos Ntourtoufis*
Zaretsky – Simon Dyer*
Captain – David William-Matthews*
Farm Steward – Simon Marsh*

Blackheath Opera Chorus
Pupils from Brooklands Primary and Charlton Schools
Laban Youth Dance Company
Blackheath Halls Orchestra
Nicholas Jenkins

Harry Fehr – Director
Tom Oldham – Designer

*Vocal student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 July, 2011
Venue: Blackheath Halls, London SE3

Blackheath Community Opera’s projects enjoy a healthy reputation. Eugene Onegin is its fifth production (following Carmen, La bohème, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and L’elisir d’amore). Down at Blackheath Halls is the true spirit of opera, both wonderful and humbling at the same time.

Reuniting the director and conductor of last year’s Donizetti, Harry Fehr (one-time Royal Opera Young Artist) and Nicholas Jenkins (of New Sussex Opera) – there was a similarly rustic setting to L’elisir – at least for Onegin’s first two acts, transposed into post-war mid-America, the locals in checked shirts and dungarees. Oklahoma! next? The updating worked surprisingly well, the final scene set at a performance of the New York City Ballet (the Polonaise danced by seven members of the Laban Youth Dance Company), Tatyana resplendent in a vibrant red 1950s’ ball-gown, the massed community chorus arrayed across the acting area on gold-coloured chairs. The fact that Onegin’s final shame is witnessed by some of the chorus is as innovative as Lensky’s demise (at his own hand, rather than Onegin’s) shows who Fehr has carefully thought-through the whole work. Recognising that the Act Two ‘Waltz’ would be difficult for everybody to join in, Fehr has choreographed a rather speedy game of musical chairs, which Olga and Onegin play to the end.

With the audience seated on three sides of the main hall (including on the raked stage), and the orchestra on the fourth side, behind a raised dais that was expertly used in the first and third Acts, the acting area encompassed most of the auditorium. This led to an immediacy often impossible in proscenium-arch productions, with an extraordinary effect, at times in true stereo, singers either side of you. The use of a chorus made up of community volunteers and local school children (there are four schools involved, two each – one infants and one special needs school – doing two performances) somehow seems to naturally create an assemblage of individual characters, rather than an amorphous professional chorus, and all the exits and entrances were skilfully judged including direct entrances.

With sopranos and mezzos far outweighing tenors (including some ladies) and basses, the chorus scenes were full to bustin’, and Fehr in Act One’s opening scene and second Act birthday-party gave them lots of bustling activity, through which the principals propelled the narrative. Using David Lloyd-Jones’s serviceable, rhyming translation, for the most part the libretto jumped off the page, only occasionally obscured by the sheer amount of movement or the occasional imbalance caused, normally, when a singer had their back to you. The Act One/scene 1 quartet, ‘Now tell me, which one’s Tatyana?’, was very affecting, as were two other set-pieces, Lensky’s and Onegin’s pre-duel duet, looking away from each other, and the final meeting of Onegin and Tatyana symmetrically seated with the empty golden chairs between them.

More strongly than ever before, I realised the strength of the plotting. Each act has a central outpouring of (naive) love and in the first two acts they are dashed by Onegin’s words or actions: Act One, Tatyana’s letter, coolly rejected and, in Act Two, Lensky’s anguish at Onegin’s pursuit of Olga (and her delight in it) leading to the duel. Act Three’s focus turns the table on Onegin: the sting-in-the-tale is that his own pent-up love for Tatyana (too late!) that is spurned by her. Yet, here there is an additional outpouring of love: Gremin’s knock-out aria ‘The Gift of Love is Rightly Treasured’, sung with heartfelt ardour by Andrew Greenan, sometimes directly to Valentine’s Tatyana, where often the direction sees her an idealised figure elsewhere on (maybe off) the stage.

I particularly liked Kate Valentine’s change from diffident ingénue (left alone at her own birthday party after Lensky and Onegin’s row and duel challenge) to assured princess, while Nicholas Sharratt’s Lensky also got my sympathy. Perhaps Damian Thantrey’s chisel-featured Onegin was not self-centred enough (after all, after the performance he opened the door for me as I left), but I liked the way he threw over most of the chairs in his final confrontation with Tatyana. Harriet Williams looked far too young to be Larina, mother of Tatyana and Olga, but she provided a nice double act with Linda Hibberd’s Filipyevna. Katie Slater, as a rich-toned Olga, led a number of Trinity Laban vocal students, which also included a finely-studied Triquet from Panos Ntourntoufis.

So, a wonderful production of a wonderful opera, marshalled with fluid grace by Nicholas Jenkins. What his orchestra, as community-fed as the chorus, with boosting from Trinity Laban students, lacked in secure pitching (opening phrases jarred until each number settled down), was made up by commendable stamina in getting through a three-hour production (two intervals) with rarely a rhythmic glitch. Overt operatic excellence may yet reside in the country’s established houses, but Blackheath Community Opera gives as much commitment and actively involves so many more people that it can only be roundly welcomed and celebrated. Go see!

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