Eugene Onegin, Op.24 – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after Alexander Pushkin [sung in Russian with English side-titles to a reduced orchestration by Derek Clark]
Onegin – Nicholas Lester
Tatyana – Jenny Stafford
Lensky – Thomas Elwin
Olga – Angharad Lyddon
Larina – Sarah Pring
Filipyevna – Rhonda Browne
Gremin – Julian Close
Triquet – Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts
Zaretsky – Peter James Norris
Captain – Ben Knight
Head Peasant – Jonah Halton
Dancers – Charlie Mellor & Louise Rigby
West Green House Opera Chorus & Orchestra
John Ramster – Director
Richard Studer – Designer
Adrian Linford – Costume designer
Sarah Bath – Lighting designer
Charlie Morgan – Choreographer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 31 July, 2021
Venue: West Green House, Thackhams Lane, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, UK
West Green’s unique selling point among the summer opera festival venues is its exquisite gardens that are lit at nightfall. Normally, the audience do not see this until they leave the auditorium at the end. But the arrangement devised this year – with the stage in a pavilion constructed on the island in the lake, viewed by the audience from the lawns across the water – means that the illumined trees and gardens form part of the backdrop for the second half of the performance as the darkness falls.
In this case, the interval comes before the second scene of Act Two, so that the duel opens the second part. Although actually set in the morning in the score, the sepulchral shadows of dusk with icy blue-grey colours projected on to the surrounding trees create a strikingly deathly visual atmosphere for the scene, until blood red lights flash upon it at the point when Lensky is fatally shot. The immediate succession of the more conventional bright lights for the grand ball in Prince Gremin’s honour several years later then registers as more shocking as the memory of Lensky – Onegin’s once close friend – is quickly relegated to oblivion, rather than being allowed to linger over the course of an interval. The interplay of lights and shadows on stage continue to make suggestive points up to the climax as Onegin regrets his past behaviour.
John Ramster’s production is admirably alert and engaging, even without the effects of illuminations. Costumes correctly and elegantly evoke the 1820s setting of the original, with the serfs and Filipyevna in Russian dress to stand out from the more Western style appearance of the other characters. People come and go over the bridge to the island where the stage is located, drawing attention to the wider space around the main action. Despite a comparatively small stage, the cast make full and fluid use of it, making both telling gestures to emphasise or contradict what is explicitly stated, and more dramatically charged formations as they gather together or turn their backs on the principal characters to indicate social acceptance or ostracisation. All that is nimbly executed around the orchestra, discreetly placed along the back; indeed they feel more or less fully a part of the action in this drama which pits the public and private realms against each other, and so can be conceived as integral to the ceremonial scenes which occur in each of the Acts – harvest time, Tatyana’s name day, and the grand ball at Saint Petersburg.
Nicholas Lester is a rich toned and inscrutable Onegin as he sidles on and off the stage – including at the end of the Letter Scene in an additional dramatic appearance in this production, like a figment of Tatyana’s imagination – to create a sense of hovering mystery. Jenny Stafford’s Tatyana is generally reserved, but musically and eloquently so, coming into her own during her long monologue in the Letter Scene, where she traverses a wide range of emotions with steady dexterity, albeit a modest degree of passion.
By contrast, in Angharad Lyddon’s interpretation, her sister Olga is more creamily expressive, indicating her more realistic, pragmatic understanding of the facts of life, compared with Tatyana’s dreaminess. Thomas Elwin gives a solid account of the part of Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, but his reflective solo before the duel with Onegin is captivatingly private and withdrawn, rightly making this one of the most dramatic episodes in the performance. Sarah Pring and Rhonda Browne make some incisive contributions as Larina and Filipyevna respectively, and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts is a flamboyant Triquet in character, though could evoke more ironic humour in his song to Tatyana.
The smaller orchestra under Lada Valesova’s baton conveys well the often doleful, languid hue of the music which gives voice to the soul-searching and intense inward reflections of Tatyana and Onegin. The strings take on a particularly silken, viol-like timbre in conjuring the night in the introduction to Act One’s second scene. The ensemble sounds rather thin for the public scenes, however, and sometimes a touch scrappy, particularly in the ebullient, well-known waltz and polonaise, but there is at least a lively pacing in those episodes, offering due contrast with the more intimate sections.
Plans were underway before the pandemic to create a permanent auditorium at West Green to replace the existing one next to the house. It remains to be seen whether something like this year’s solution at the lake will be used again in some form. But whatever happens, the results should be fascinating as we come to see how those responsible for this festival will exploit the incredible natural resources at the venue in future productions.