Now in its eleventh season, Stanley Hall Opera opted this year to move on from the Mozart, Rossini/Donizetti and early Verdi comic opera repertoire in which it has made quite a name for itself and to tackle a much more serious work: the ‘seven lyric scenes after Pushkin’ that constitute Eugene Onegin. It was a grown-up choice and the work was given a straightforward, no nonsense production, set and costumed in the 1890s and accompanied by an excellent small orchestra (using the reduction made by Derek Clarke) under the baton of John Andrews. It is a measure of how greatly standards have progressed on the summer opera circuit in recent years that the orchestral sound was generous, well focused and entirely secure: and Andrews did an excellent job for his singers, broadening his tempi whenever the ensemble needed it, but keeping the pulse of the music beating steadily throughout. So no extremes of tempi, no huge excitements, but a well-crafted account of Tchaikovsky’s passionate and sometimes anguished score, its chamber music qualities (and subtle interplay between strings, woodwind and horns) well to the fore.
The vista from the 600 seat theatre that constitutes Stanley Hall Opera, with the rear stage awnings removed, is the lush, rolling countryside of North East Essex. This made a passable substitute for Madame Larina’s country estate, although a sweltering afternoon in a mini-heatwave made the sight of greatcoated seconds to Onegin and Lensky in the duel scene somewhat incongruous – and one felt for the performers! Stage furniture was kept to the minimum, with an area of grey floorboarding set centre stage at a slight rake and chairs disposed variously on it to indicate the party and ball scenes. Inevitably stage spectacle was reduced: and sensibly director Natascha Metherell concentrated on the human drama and narrative interplay between Onegin and Tatiana, Lensky and Olga. This was very much the approach taken by the other reduced version of Eugene Onegin that I saw at Iford a couple of years ago, and with a chorus of six, it makes good sense!
I have to say however – and this also applied to the Iford production – that if you take away the full peasant song and dance routine (with its exhilarating music) that normally enlivens the first scene of the opera, you are left with quite a lot of one-paced narrative and atmospheric plot depiction, mainly for female voices, that does not make for great or exciting theatre. And so this production took quite a while to generate dramatic momentum. In fact it was not until the second half of the piece (from the fourth lyric scene onwards) that the production came into focus and the performances really came alive. Up until then things were a little bit one-paced.
The standard of singing was high. Tchaikovsky wrote Eugene Onegin with young performers in mind and although this poses certain problems for the older, character roles, the results achieved by the Stanley Hall cast were good overall, if at times a little bland. As Lensky, Shaun Dixon coped with ease with the high tessitura of the role and impressed with an engaging stage personality (he would have made a much more suitable choice for Tatiana!) Opposite him, as Olga, Laura Kelly projected well (and I like the timbre of her mezzo, particularly in the middle register) but the production failed to make sufficient distinction between her and her dreamy sister Tatiana: although Olga is one of those operatic characters who fade from the scene as the work progresses, it is vital to establish a vivid contrast between the girls from the outset – here, they looked and they moved in disconcertingly similar fashion and a novice operagoer might have had trouble distinguishing them at times. As Onegin, Grant Doyle did all that a singer can do to establish his moody, disdainful, often aloof character; displayed a nice sense of phrasing and a clean melodic line (the English translation by David Lloyd Jones is not always helpful in this respect, but does the job adequately) but I missed the darker, more noble tone that certain singers can bring to the role. I heard Doyle sing the Count in Garsington’s last ever performance of Le nozze di Figaro last year and found his voice to be on the light side then – his Onegin did not really change my view. But his was a thoroughly dependable performance.
And so to Tatiana, sung here by Natasha Jouhl. She gave us the most thrilling operatic moments in the whole production, not – as so often – in the letter scene but rather in her final scene encounter with Onegin, when she so satisfyingly and imperiously confesses her love for him – and tells him to get lost. Jouhl has a creamy, lush soprano sound, full of colour and intensity, but the really attractive feature of her voice is its focus: she delivers text as if she means it, and the voice intensifies her meaning. Paradoxically, this makes Jouhl less of a natural in the opening scenes. Tatiana is supposed to be shy, withdrawn, a dreamer and an avid reader of Romantic literature. She cannot say to Onegin what she feels about him – she has to write it in a letter. With Jouhl, I always felt that she was almost too much in command and in control of the proceedings – I missed the frailty and the vulnerability that can be brought to the part (and the true pianissimo that ought to bring her letter so breathtakingly alive). But she sang wonderfully throughout, and her triumph in the final scene sent the audience away on a high.
The supporting cast were efficient and unobtrusive. James Oldfield was a youthful Gremin and does not really have the bass extension yet that the ball scene aria can take: no matter, he was musical and effective. Stuart Haycock made the most of his chances as Monsieur Triquet and sang his tribute to Tatiana with style and panache.
It speaks volumes for the rise in operatic standards on the summer opera circuit as a whole that this Eugene Onegin was as slick, well-crafted and musically satisfying as it was. And although the show took a while to generate dramatic impulse and momentum, by the final scene the various elements in the work came together in resounding fashion.