Eugene Onegin, a lyric opera by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, is based on Pushkin’s novel of the same name, converted into an operatic libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky. It tells the tale of a selfish hero, Onegin, who rejects the outburst of love from the young Tatyana and instead flirts with her older sister, Olga, who is engaged to his best friend, Lensky. This leads to a duel, in which Lensky is killed. Onegin, horrified by what he has done, leaves Russia and when he returns years later he finds that Tatyana is married to Prince Gremin, a battle-scarred soldier. He realises that he has loved her all along and declares this in an impassioned outburst, to which she replies that it is too late and the moment has passed. She is now a married woman and must remain faithful to her husband, even if she still harbours feelings for Onegin. It is hardly the traditional fairytale ending of most love stories, but this didactic flavour is a distinctly Russian trait and provides plentiful inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and colourful score.

© Alastair Muir
© Alastair Muir

Putting on an opera in a concert hall is always a challenge. There are lots of decisions to be made – how much staging and set is to be used? Are the performers going to be in costume? Where is the orchestra to go? I arrived at Cadogan Hall last night wondering how on earth they were going to interpret the Russian peasant village and the decadent Gremin Palace of Act III. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they hadn’t cut any corners as far as costumes and set were concerned. With the orchestra squeezed in at the back of the stage, there wasn’t much room for a set, but the props were beautifully authentic and the costumes quite simply incredible. Starting in the rural Russian village, the chorus played their part as peasants, in convincing Russian outfits. The choreography throughout, especially in the short “puppet” dance, interpreted by two straw-clad dancers, was wonderful and very cleverly managed in such a small space.

I have to admit, I found the quiet, rather sad Tatyana of the first act a little weak, compared to the enthusiastic and honest portrayal of young love given by Olga (Caryl Hughes) and Lensky (Anthony Flaum). In the famous letter scene, however, in which Tatyana writes her declaration of undying love to the arrogant Onegin (James McOran-Campbell), the subtlety of Ilona Domnich’s acting really came to fore. Rather than throwing herself around the stage, she gave an extremely real and completely engrossing rendering, with her incredibly free and expressive voice bringing the scene and its emotional power to life. The power of a youth production, such as this, performed by the Rising Stars of Grange Park Opera, is the fresh rendering of a well-known story, so often performed by more jaded singers.

Director Stephen Medcalf decided to power through Acts I and II without an interval, which I thought was a brave decision, not only for the audience’s attention span, but for the voices of the main characters – who didn’t flag for a moment. Unfortunately this decision meant that several of the scene changes were rather awkwardly managed; with the lights dimmed and a tense silence in the Hall, the action came to a complete standstill and the illusion completely shattered, which was rather a shame.

In Act III, the costumes really stood out, with every member of the cast clad in rich evening wear. The second half began as the first with a montage of the ball room, Tatyana wandering among the frozen party. The chorus gradually and rather cleverly came to life throughout the overture, with the breath of life being passed from person to person, which was rather beautifully handled, and emphasised Tatyana’s separation from the party. With the return of Onegin, musical and dramatic tension was brought to the fore, culminating in the stormy dialogue between Tatyana and our protagonist in which she asks him whether his love for her is due to her new status in society. He throws himself at her feet declaring his undying love, but she tells him it can never be and storms off the stage. The hairs on the back of my neck, and I’m sure many others’, were on end as Tatyana and Onegin part forever with Tchaikovsky’s heartbreaking music filling the Hall. I left with the feeling that I had experienced a true night at the opera – Russian decadence, glorious music and a cast that blew me away with their young talent. Rising stars indeed.