In what promises to be a season highlight, the Ulster Orchestra, joined by soprano Giselle Allen and baritone David Kempster, delivered an exciting performance of high musical standards and moments of remarkably receptive interpretation. Under the baton of their principal guest conductor Jac van Steen, the orchestra proved to be in good form for excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which were preceded by a selection of Smetana’s tone poems from his cycle  vlast.

Giselle Allen © Hazard Chase
Giselle Allen
© Hazard Chase
Surely the most quintessential Czech work in sentiment, Smetana’s sweepingly romantic ode to his home country set the tone for the evening. Performing the first four of Má vlast's six tone poems, the orchestra was most convincing during restrained solo passages in the woodwinds, notably towards the end of Vyšehrad, the opening of Vltava and the subsequent, Šárka, where the clarinet solo was performed with warm tone and a great sense for line by Francesco Paolo Scola. While the orchestra’s rendition was fine overall, it lacked sprightliness at times, with the strings in particular struggling to convey a sense of grandeur or verve. Van Steen visibly tried to animate his players and instill more pronounced dramatic effect, but the string playing remained anodyne and, at times, imprecise. Thankfully, various dance movements throughout the works were interpreted with greater energy. Both the peasant dance (Vlatava) and the Polka in From Bohemia's Woods and Fields bounced merrily along, though not exploring their full potential for buoyancy and exuberance.

Attitudes rather changed for the second half of the concert, which seemed altogether tighter and rehearsed in more detail. Northern Irish soprano Giselle Allen, known to local audiences through her performances for NI Opera (as Salome and Senta among others) and Welsh baritone David Kempster took to the stage for Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin’s epic novel Eugene Onegin. The 1878 opera explores the tale of egocentric nobleman Onegin through a succession of striking images rather than following the novel’s complex narrative; a structure lending itself well to the selection of the most dramatic scenes in the context of a concert. In this instance, the programme featured Tatyana’s famous letter scene in Act II, Onegin’s dismissal thereof, the Act III Polonaise and the opera’s final scene between Onegin and Tatyana.

Maybe it was the work of Allen’s stand-out performance as Tatyana spurring the orchestra on, but the dramatic tension was palpable, with varied dynamics and a glorious Polonaise. Allen sparkled in the title role, her soprano projecting well and her diction of the Russian libretto clear and filled with interpretative detail. She managed to perfectly capture the contrasting moods of the Letter Scene, maintaining intensity during pensive passages and building to a goosebump-inducing climax, brimming with passion as Tatyana realises the potential implications of her love letter. The repeated horn motif was tender, almost touching in this rendition and, in general, the orchestra was balanced well against the singers, bearing testimony to van Steen’s background in opera conducting and the UO’s experience of playing with NI Opera. The ensuing scene sees Onegin rejecting Tatyana’s ardent feeling, despite her flawless personality and beauty. The aria, much more measured and pragmatic in feeling, was performed impressively by Kempster, who remained suitably stone-faced throughout this early scene. In the opera’s final scene, the protagonists reunited for a final time, explaining their mutual love but facing a future apart. Both Kempster and Allen brought the scene’s emotional extremes to life and received an enthusiastic reception.