Review: Eugene Onegin

MARK DANCIGER appreciates his first foray into opera, with a professional and talented production of Eugene Onegin

ADC Cambridge culture Eugene Onegin Opera review Tab Theatre West Road Hall

I have to confess, I don’t know all that much about opera.

I’ve never really taken the time to get into it, and the few operas I’ve seen in the past have left me cold. However, CUOS have done an excellent job at warming me to the genre with their slick and cleverly staged production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. It’s easy to follow, with beautiful music and some excellent solo performances. Though far from perfect, it is well worth the trip out to West Road.

The opera is closely based on Pushkin’s 19th Century verse novel about passion and unrequited love. It focuses on the relationships between Onegin (Lawrence Williams), his friend Lensky (Xavier Hetherington), Lensky’s lover Olga (Helen Charlston) and her sister, Tatiana (Nina Kanter). As the relationships grow more strained, romance turns to tragedy.

Though some knowledge of the plot is recommended, a quick scan of the Wikipedia summary will give you all you need to know. CUOS do an excellent job of making the show accessible to those who may not have seen the show (or any opera at all) before- the cast’s diction is clear and precise, and director Rob Hawkins stages the action so that it is immediately clear what is going on, even if you struggle to make out all the words of the complex arias.

Quintin Beer and his orchestra were exceptional.

Quintin Beer and his orchestra were exceptional.

The music was outstanding, and full credit has to be given to Quintin Beer and his orchestra for a rich and emotive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s excellent score. Though the show approached 3 hours in length, the consistent beauty of the music meant that I was never bored, even when the plot reached its slower sections.

The cast’s singing was also fantastic. Particular mention has to go to Hetherington as Lensky. Some of his arias were hauntingly beautiful, and his solo before his fatal duel with Onegin is still lodged in my brain. Kanter also particularly impressed as the vulnerable Tatiana, and her sung love letter to Onegin was a particular highlight.

However, the cast struggled when it came to acting. Many of the leads have had very little acting experience in Cambridge, and have clearly been chosen purely in virtue of their singing. This is not particularly problematic – after all, the music takes priority in opera. Nevertheless, it meant that certain moments lacked the dramatic power that they could have had with a more experienced cast. In particular, despite his powerful voice, Williams’s Onegin was fairly static and reserved, and occasionally failed to command the stage.

Dracula-esque, the characters of Eugene were impressive, but less engaging.

Dracula-esque, the characters of Eugene were impressive, but less engaging.

I also question the decision to perform the opera in English, as opposed to its original Russian. Though this made it marginally more accessible, it meant that the lyrics often became forced and contrived, losing much of Pushkin’s poetry, and leading to unintentionally hilarious lines such as “don’t be so silly”. I think a performance in Russian, with English surtitles, would have been preferable.

However, the show was impressive from a technical perspective. Anyone who has seen West Road in its normal state will be blown away by how the crew have transformed a fairly dull space into a fully functioning theatre, complete with a set that can match even the best ADC shows. The lighting was very effective, when it worked. There were some clear technical hitches, such as flickering lights and moving spotlights that tracked across the audience, but these are just minor niggles that I expect will be fixed for future performances.

Whether you are a seasoned opera fan or have never been, it is definitely worth checking out Eugene Onegin. It is a moving, accessible and rarely dull show, which despite its flaws, is consistently impressive.

66% – A solid 2:1