Tuesday 11 June 2013

Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera

Brett Polegato as Onegin in act 3  of Grange Park Opera' s Eugene Onegin
Brett Polegato as Onegin in act 3
of Grange Park Opera' s Eugene Onegin
Stephen Medcalf's attractive and intelligently traditional production of Eugene Onegin was originally seen at Grange Park Opera last year, performed by the Grange Park Opera rising stars (see my review). The production returned this year with Susan Gritton singing her first Tatyana, Brett Polegato as Onegin, Frances Bourne as Olga, Robert Anthony Gardiner as Lensky, Anne-Marie Owens as Madam Larina, Kathleen Wilkinson as Filipyevna and Clive Bayley as Prince Gremin. Martyn Brabbins conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Designer Francis O'Connor's two-tier set made good use of the stage, with the upper level allowing Madame Larina and her family to look down on the peasants dancing, and provided a way of making scenes like the ball scene look opulent without being crowded on the relatively small Grange Park Opera stage. Medcalf also used the upper level to isolate his characters, so that Polegato's Onegin was alone up there at the end of the dance at Madame Larina's.

Another device by which Medcalf isolated both Tatyana and Onegin was his freezing the action. Each act started with the singers frozen into position; Medcalf took advantage of this at the opening of act 2, to have Susan Gritteon wander about distractedly, emphasising her separation from the party goers. And during Clive Bayley'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.

The set was the same throughout, albeit with a grand spiral staircase being added to the balcony for act 3. The back drop was luxuriant foliage, giving Madama Larina's house creating a the idea of a real country paradise. Paul Keogan's highly effective lighting ensured that the moods of the opera's different scenes were finely reflected in the visual side of the staging. The duel scene was especially notable, staged in the ruins of Madame Larina's party but Keogan's lighting creating an altogether different effect.

Robert Anthony Gardiner and Brett Polegato in the duel scene from Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera
Robert Anthony Gardiner and Brett Polegato in the duel scene 
Susan Gritton and Brett Polegato as Tatyana and Onegin, both made a strong case for casting the roles with mature singers, each brought intelligence and experience to the role completely transcending the apparent limitations of age differences to their characters.

Gritton was an intensely dignified and self-contained Tatyana. In the first two acts she was convincingly girlish, bringing out Tatyana's dreamy side with a tendency to drift away both physically and mentally. And having an experience singer helps in the letter scene, Gritton's performance was a marvel of balance, poise and intensity. Finely paced, she conveyed the young girl's confusion at this overwhelming passion, bringing out the sheer beauty and vividness of Tchaikovsky's music.

Brett Polegato was stiff and self-absorbed without being grim as Onegin. Sometimes, singers forget that the character is supposed to be charismatic and attractive. There was no danger of that here, you could sense Onegin's attraction. Polegato and Gritton created a strong and believable chemistry and the scene at the end of act 1 where Onegin gives the letter back to Tatyana was unbearable in its intensity.

When Gritton reappeared in act 3, it was hard to believe it was the same person, so convincingly did Gritton's outward display mirror Tatyana's inward transformation. And her anguish in the final confrontation with Onegin was finely drawn, with Polegato superbly desperate. Sometimes this scene can appear to come from a different opera, with the two singers so much more dramatically mature, but here Gritton and Polegato ensured that their characters had followed a clear arc of development and the scene was a highly satisfying conclusion.

Robert Anthony Gardiner was an intense, almost neurotic Lensky. Gardiner has a light, lyric voice which does not yet respond well to pressure. There were moments when you felt that the role might be a step too far at present, but his use of his resources was intelligent and this was a finely drawn performance. Medcalf ensured that the denoument at the end of Madame Larina's party came as the result of the carefully graded development of Lensky's character, with Gardiner even joining in with the end of Monsieur Triquet's solo (sung by Stuart Kale).

Gardiner's solo in the duel scene was touching, but the final duet with Gardiner and Polegato facing each other and gradually walking to a mutual embrace, was stunning.

Frances Bourne was a dark voiced, coquettish Olga. An apt complement to Gritton's Tatyana as well as someone who was obviously quite unsuited to Gardiner's intense Lensky. Anne-Marie Owens made Madame Larina rather more dignified than some, but was touching nonetheless particularly in her duet with Kathleen Wilkinson's entrancing Filipyevna. Clive Bayley gave a very strong performance of Prince Gremin's aria. And Stuart Kale showed what a lifetime's experience can bring to even a cameo like Monsieur Triquet's aria. Nicholas Dwyer was Zaretsky and Jonathan Alley the Captain.

For me, one of the essentials of a production of Eugene Onegin is the dancing. Though the production used six dancers, the chorus also contributed in both Madame Larina's dance and the ball scene, as well as the peasants in act 1, thus ensuring that the dances were a true reflection of community. And Lynne Hockney's choreography made clever use of the space available.  The chorus were on fine form in both their singing and dancing.

Having Martyn Brabbins conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit paid dividends in an opera notable for its instrumental interludes. Brabbins and the orchestra ensured that Tchaikovsky's orchestra writing was on a fine and expressive level as the rest of the performance. Brabbins gave us a nicely controlled and well structured performance, encouraging some really expressive playing from the orchestra.

Medcalf and O'Connor showed that Eugene Onegin doesn't need clever tricks, and in Grange Park Opera's relatively intimate theatre the intensity of the performances shone through.

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