In OperaUpClose’s ambitious pocket production of Eugene Onegin, the rolling Russian landscape of the Larin family estate has been replaced by a suburban semi in 1960s London and the huge cast of peasants and retainers has been whittled down to Mrs Larin and her daughters, their suitors and four neighbours.
Tchaikovsky’s expansive score, re-orchestrated by Alison Holford, divides up the familiar, sweeping melodies between clarinet, cello, violin and the busy piano of musical director Sonia Ben-Santamaria.
Robin Norton-Hale’s new English translation homes in on Tatyana Larin’s story, locating it in the 1960s just as feminism dawns. Her mother has settled for marriage and children, her sister Olga (a wholesome, sparky Felicity Buckland) is happy to do the same, but bookish Tatyana wants more.
When Lensky, sung with comic ardour by Anthony Flaum, introduces his unattached friend Onegin, (Felix Kemp, a pleasing young baritone who could dial down the charm and increase the cynicism), Tatyana imagines romance. Soprano Lucy Hall sings prettily as the shy teenager, injects drama into her feverish Letter scene and emerges in the last act as a self-assured woman, a published author who rejects Onegin’s declaration of love.
Theatrically, this Onegin works very well, thanks to Lucy Bradley’s clear, entertaining direction and Rosanna’s Vize’s simple set with its period detail (the Dansette, the cardigans and the waisted summer dresses). Mrs Larin (Kathryn Hannah) and her competent housekeeper Evie (Flora McIntosh) make a great double act, as do gossiping neighbours Joyce (Alexandra Stenson) and Carol (Caroline Daggett).
Musically, the singing is excellent, but the opera cries out for the fullness and sweep of a bigger orchestra. OperaUpClose doesn’t skimp on the exciting, full-bodied sound of young, operatically trained voices, so why not complement them with a few more strings, woodwind or brass?