Friday 21 September 2012

Eugene Onegin - Grange Park Opera Rising Stars at Cadogan Hall

Having a young cast performing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin can place the opera in rather a different light, emphasising the relative youth of the protagonists. After all, even Onegin is still a comparatively young man. At Cadogan Hall on 20 September, Grange Park Opera's Rising Stars brought this aspect of the opera out when performing in Stphen Medcalf's intelligently traditional production. There was no room for sets on the Cadogan Hall's stage, with the orchestra crammed in behind the singers, but Francis O'Connor's costumes and props set the piece firmly in the Russia of the 1880's.

Though the production was traditional in style, Medcalf introduced elements which lifted the piece from the ordinary. Each act started with the singers frozen into position; Medcalf took advantage of this at the opening of Act 2, to have Ilona Domnich's Tatyana wander about distractedly, emphasising her separation from the party goers. And during Matthew Stiff's delivery of Prince Gremin's aria, the chorus froze just leaving Tatyana again to wander around, placing focus on her. This slight stylisation could have been annoying, but Medcalf used it sparingly and the effect worked well, particularly on the small Cadogan Hall stage where things could get rather crowded.

His other striking innovation was in the letter scene. Here Tatyana wrote the letter at her desk, but at a certain point she got up, thus enabling Domnich to communicate with the audience more directly, but a ghostly hand continued to write the letter as if Tatyana was still seated at her desk.

The work was sung in Russian, and it probably helped having a number of native Russian speakers in the cast. What I found particularly noticeable was how all involved, soloists and ensembles, not only sounded convincingly Russian (with the very dark backward placing of some vowels), but that they used the language convincingly and expressively. This was one of the most communicative performances in Russian of the piece that I have heard in a long time. Some credit for this must presumably go to Alexia Mankovskaya who as well as playing Madam Larina, is listed as one of the Russian coaches.

Inevitably, hearing young singers in these roles, you feel that some of them are just passing through and that their chosen fach, when voice has fully developed, will be a bit different. Ilona Domnich has an attractive lyric voice with quite a substantial (though not wide) vibrato which she uses expressively, creating a lovely rich sound. Her Tatyana was young and a little impulsive but also a bit staid. She was enormously appealing in the first two acts, and developed into a poised young woman in the third act. Her voice does not yet, quite have the resources of strength that the role always needs, so that in the third act she sounded a little too light though she came over as wonderfully controlled and mature. This was also reflected in the letter scene.  Though her account was nicely impulsive and beautifully sung, the results were moving, without quite yet mining the depths that are possible. You knew that in a few years she will be capable of so much more.

James McOran-Campbell was delightfully young fogey-ish in the first two acts; managing to convey something of the character's appeal without being too buttoned up. McOran-Campbell is undoubtedly a singer able to convey charisma, which is essential in this role. In the first two acts, the character is very much reactive, he doesn't tell us what he is feeling but we have to learn from his interaction with others. McOran-Campbell was enormously helped here by Medcalf's beautifully detailed production, which set the piece firmly in a society where small gestures told. In act three, Onegin finally lets his emotions out and here McOran-Campbell let rip in thrilling form. He and Domnich were vividly intense in the final scene.

Anthony Flaum as Lensky, had a rather rich, heavily vibratoed voice which you felt will develop into a rather interesting instrument. Flaum used his vibrato expressively and created the feeling of the rather puppyish enthusiasm of the poet. He nicely delineated Lensky's growing obsession during Madam Larina's party, helped by a generous consumption of alcohol. During the aria in the duel scene, though he sang it finely, I was very aware of him managing his voice to ensure that the vibrato did not impact too much on the sense of line needed. This was a compelling and intelligent performance, but I feel that Flaum's voice will develop in other directions.

Interestingly, the most powerful moment in the duel scene wasn't Lensky's aria, but the subsequent duet between Flaum and McOran-Campbell. Medcalf had the two singers perform facing each other and gradually they moved towards a stiff embrace, which they could not follow through. A profoundly intense and moving moment.

Carly Hughes was nicely skittish as Olga, without being an awful flirt. From her first scene with Flaum, Medcalf established that Olga's love for Lensky was by no means as intense as Lensky's, which set the basis for the events of act two rather well. Hughes blended with Domnich in the duets, creating a richly expressive sound.

Alexia Mankovskaya as Madam Larina and Miriam Sharrad as Filipyevna both had the disadvantage of having to convey something of the age of their characters. This they did by giving the characters a staidness and steadiness, rather than by any comic acting. The life of the household was aptly conveyed during the opening scene when the four women were engaged in the making of jam, with Tatyana wandering off to read during the process. In act two Mankovskaya's Larina had rather more dignity than in some productions.

Matthew Stiff, as Prince Gremin, sang his aria with a nice gravitas, using a beautifully dark grained voice. Nicolas Darmanin made a delightfully youthful Monsieur Triquet. Nicholas Crawley and Nicolas Dwyer gave strong support as Zaretsky and the Captain.

The chorus were supplemented by six dancers and this was a production in which dance played a big role. After seeing productions where the dance element was played down, it was a relief and a pleasure to see how Tchaikovsky's big scenes respond to having the dance music actually danced to. Lynne Hockney's choreography was very apt and managed to convey something of the character of what was happening on stage.

The chorus were in strong form vocally and contributed magnificently to the effectiveness of the performances.

Francis O'Connor's costumes were attractively in period and always beautiful to look at. Those for the peasants in act one were truly a joy.

Toby Purser conducted the small orchestra at the back of the stage; not an idea position but the performance worked well and there seemed to be no communication issues. With a small body of strings, he was not really at liberty to luxuriate in Tchaikovsky's lovely string textures, instead he ensured that the performance was nicely expressive, but smoothly flowing. This was a well paced account of the score and I hope I get to hear it again with him conducting a rather bigger ensemble.

Cutting a stage production down to fit a concert hall is never ideal, but cast and performers all worked well together and there was no feeling that we were seeing only part of the performance. This was a vividly involving evening with some fine young voices, many of whom seemed sure to go on to great things.

Recent Reviews:

The Sixteen at the Hatfield Chamber Music Festival. (23/09/2012)

Hatfield Chamber Music Festival at Hatfield House (21/09/2012)

Eugene Onegin, Grange Park Rising Stars at Cadogan Hall (20/09/2012)

The Magic Flute, English National Opera (13/09/2012)

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