Monday 13 July 2015

Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera

Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015 - photo credit Robert Workman
Act One of Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015
photo credit Robert Workman
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin; Susan Gritton, Brett Polegato, Jung Soo Yun, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: Gianluca Marciano, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Finely satisfying revival of an intelligently traditional production

Bringing back successful opera productions with predominantly the same cast does not always pay dividends, but Grange Park Opera's revival of Stephen Medcalf's intelligently traditional Eugene Onegin (seen Sunday 12 July 2015) showed that lightening can strike twice. Susan Gritton and Brett Polegato returned as Tatyana and Onegin, with Anne Marie Owens reprising her Madam Larina, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was again in the pit this time with Gianluca Marciano conducting. New to the production were Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Olga, Rebecca de Pont Davies as Filipyevna, Jung Soo Yun as Lensky, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Monsieur Triquet, and Alan Ewing as Prince Gremin. Stephen Medcalf directed, with designs by Francis O'Connor, lighting by Paul Keogan and choreography by Lynne Hockney.

Susan Gritton in Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015 - photo credit Robert Workman
Susan Gritton in Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015
photo credit Robert Workman
The production was created in 2012 for a young cast of Grange Park Opera Rising stars (see review) and returned in 2013 for the main season with Susan Gritton and Brett Polegato (see review). Returning to the production, I was struck again by Stephen Medcalf and Francis O'Connor's clever use of space throughout. Francis O'Connor's set is two storey with a substantial mezzanine level which allows the action to play simultaneously in two places. Stephen Medcalf uses this cleverly, sometimes to enable him to create a bigger space than is really available, so that Madam Larina and her family are making jam on the upper level, whilst the peasant chorus appears below and takes up the whole stage with their dancing. But this hints at another useful device, the way the upper level can isolate. The family look down onto the peasants dancing, at various times Onegin and Tatyana are isolate on the top level, Tatyana first sees Onegin from below looking up at him (something Susan Gritton echoed in her body language during the letter scene).

Jung Soo Yun in Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015 - photo credit Robert Workman
Jung Soo Yun in Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015
photo credit Robert Workman
Dance plays an important role in the production. Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of dance into the opera, the peasants in Act One, the bourgeois gentry at Madam Larina's party and the grand ball chez Gremin in Act Three. He uses these to project character and a sense of community, and a good production of the opera takes advantage of this. The big advantage of the production at Grange Park was that the dancing involved not just the six dancers but the whole ensemble. I have seen productions where the chorus barely moves, but here most people got dancing. This is particularly true in Act Two, where the lively ensemble dancing combined with Stephen Medcalf's detailed direction of the principals and of the smaller characters to create the sort of dance like the embarrassing one described by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennett's entire family seem set to embarrass her. In this production, at one point, Brett Polegato's Onegin retires to the upper level fleeing the sheer chaos below.

Dance is used cleverly in the last act too, the polonaise is danced by 12 dancers on the upper level whilst the older members promenade and gossip about Onegin below, then during the lively second dance the four dancers are suddenly joined by a third pair, which includes Princess Gremin (Susan Gritton), displaying a poise and a soignee sense of social danse which was a far cry from Tatyana's trying to escape her mother's party. It was a very neat way to introduce Tatyana into the act and made a great deal of sense of Onegin's comment asking who she is, as he looks up at her.

Of course, all this sense of character and community would not go for anything without strong performances from the principals. Here Susan Gritton and Brett Polegato really did create a sense of electricity. Susan Gritton was an elegantly dreamy Tatyana, as believably 16 as any mature singer can make her, and singing with a lovely fluid, focussed tone which contributed immensely to the feeling of youth. This was a Tatyana who withdrew dreamily at the slightest opportunity, but who had immense reserves of power for the long letter scene. Here Susan Gritton was coruscating, without pushing the character into too mature territory, and her body language was as revealing as her singing. In the last act by contrast she was devastatingly poised, yet clearly very torn.

Brett Polegato as Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015 - photo credit Robert Workman
Brett Polegato as Eugene Onegin at Grange Park Opera, 2015
photo credit Robert Workman
Brett Polegato made a slightly more saturnine Onegin than is common, but his stiff demeanour in Act One successfully evinced a sense of sexy otherness, the fascination of a city bred older man. He was devastating in his put down of Tatyana at the end of Act One, and finely world-weary in Act Two, but all the time his warmly flexible baritone made us sympathetic to him. This turned into near dementia in the Act Three ball scene which prepared us for the intensity of the final confrontation between Tatyana and Onegin. Brett Polegato's cavalier goading of Lensky (Jung Soo Yun) by flirting with Olga (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) was well prepared by Stephen Medcalf, with some nicely observed behavioural detail.

Brett Polegato's duet with Jung Soo Yun before the duel was beautifully controlled and profoundly moving. It helped that in Jung Soo Yun, he had a strong partner with a Lensky who sang the role with strongly focussed tone. Jung Soo Yun has a quite distinctive tang to his voice, but he made Lensky nicely intense and obsessive, leading to his final aria which was made the more moving by the way that Jung Soo Yun was able to sing it with strong tone, but with a fine sense of control.

Stephen Medcalf gave us hints of the problems in Olga and Lensky's relationship in Act One, when Rebecca Afonwy-Jones's lively and personable Olga was rather overwhelmed by the intensity of Jung Soo Yun's greeting when Lensky first appeared. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones made a fine foil too for Susan Gritton in their lovely Act One duet.

The beauty of the performances by Anne-Marie Owens as Madam Larina and Rebecca de Pont Davies as Filipyevna was the way they combined a strong sense of ensemble, creating a real family feel with the two girls, with a strong sense of character.

The other roles were strongly cast. Alan Ewing made a highly dignified Prince Gremin, though I thought it an unnecessary gesture to have him appear a the end of Act Three and shoot Onegin.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was a delightfully characterful Monsieur Triquet. Lucasz Karauda as Zaretsky, was stiffly proper during the duel.

Having been conducting this season's Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila, Gianluca Marciano showed his versatility by turning to Tchaikovsky's lyric scenes. Here he drew a performance from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which brought out the symphonic aspects of Tchaikovsky's score (which came after the Fourth Symphony), with a lovely flow to the scenes (only impeded by the pauses necessary for scene changes).

This was a highly satisfying performance with no sense of routine in the revival.

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