Saturday 16 September 2006

Opera Review - Eugene Onegin

British Youth Opera is celebrating 20 years in the business of providing young opera singers with a training ground, between College and the opera house. Their summer season this year, at the Peacock Theatre with the Southbank Sinfonia in the pit, comprised performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw the final performance of Eugene Onegin on 15th September.

Of course, young in opera terms is relative; most of the singers had complete post-graduate training and some had even had professional experience. But in an opera like Eugene Onegin, where many of the protagonists are young, it is of some advantage to have young singers cast in the roles.

For many sopranos playing Tatiana, the first 2 acts are tricky. They have to play young and it is only in the final act that they can relax into the role. For Katrina Broderick the opposite was rather true. In the first 2 acts she was wonderfully convincing as the shy, rather plump, dreamy Tatiana; profoundly embarrassed at having to entertain Onegin. In the Act 2 party, she was the shy wall flower, profoundly disliking the attention.

Broderick has a lovely, bright focussed voice with a clear sense of line. You can understand why she was asked to sing Tatiana, but I suspect that she will not be doing so in 10 years time – more dramatic roles surely beckon. Her letter scene was expressive and musical and in indicator of what she might do in the future.

As her Onegin, George von Bergen was nearly ideal. He had just that right combination of sneer and sexy swagger. You could understand why Tatiana fell for him even though you did not really like him. His voice was apt to go a little dry at the top but he sang the role with a good sense of line. I’m sure he will be singing this role in 10 years time and, as baritones tend to mature slowly, I look forward to hearing him sing it then. If he sings the role so well now, what will 10 years of experience do.

Neither Clara Mouritz nor Shaun Dixon were ideal for the roles of Olga or Lensky, their voices surely point in other directions. But Mouritz made a fine, perky Olga and in the Act 2 party scene mixed flirtiness, puzzlement and tragedy. Both Mouritz and Dixon were wonderfully convincing in their portrayal of the young lovers. All the scenes with the 4 young people in Acts 1 and 2 were infectiously engaging, you did not have to make any allowances at all.

When it came to tragedy, Dixon was dramatically very moving but his voice simply lacked the sense of line that I would like in the role. Dixon is fine, dramatic singer. In other roles he will shine, as Lensky he was never less than creditable.

The supporting roles were all very well taken. Catherine Hopper and Sigridur Osk Kristjansdottir were excellent as Madame Larina and Filipyevna, treading the fine line between convincingly playing old and caricature. In fact, neither resorted to caricature and this was the least hackneyed performance of Filipyevna that I have ever seen.

William Kerley’s production was generally traditional, which surely helped the singers to portray their characters. Tom Rogers’s set consisted simply of a series of flexible wooden screens with window and doors. Only in Prince Gremin’s palace did you regret the lack of a bigger production budget.

Madame Larina’s party was a triumph of stage work for director, singers and hard working chorus. On the Peacock’s small-ish stage, it really felt like a dance in a provincial house. I was less convinced by his staging of the duel; set in a barn the actual dual took place outside, beyond our field of vision, which was rather strange.

Another oddity, albeit a more understandable one, was that the opening polonaise of Act 3 was played as an entracte; we saw no dancing at Prince Gremin's which made his party an altogether sub-fusc affair.

When we get to Act 3, things get trickier for young singers. Time has passed, the characters are older and wiser. Director and Designer helped Broderick by replacing her rather unflattering earlier costumes with a fine, soignée dress which made you realise that the singer did actually have an attractively generous figure. Broderick combined this with a nobleness of bearing which caught Tatiana’s change of circumstance just right. Von Bergen, as Onegin, seemed to have matured less than Tatiana which is perfectly as it should be. Their final scene together was dramatically moving and very impressive, even if they did not quite wring every ounce of tragedy from the score.

As Prince Gremin, Vuyani Mlinde confirmed the good impression that he made at Grange Park Opera this year. He sang his solo with moving dignity and with a fine sense of line.

Conductor Peter Robinson kept everything moving in an admirable manner. The Southbank Sinfonia played well and successfully disguised the fact that they were probably rather too small in number to be ideal.

The opera was sung in David Lloyd-Jones’s English translation. Diction from all the singers (both native and non-native English speakers) was excellent which help to make the evening one of compelling drama as well as fine musicality.

The theatre seemed to be full of supporters of both the opera company and the singers. Unfortunately the audience was distinctly restless at times. That the management allowed people into the auditorium late meant that the opening of each act was accompanied by a sussuration of noise, and people round me tended to talk during the entractes. All very annoying, it was a good job the performance itself was so absorbing.

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