Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin’s novel, Eugene Onegin, is a tale of unfortunate timing. In the first half Tatyana, a young and impressionable country girl, proclaims her burning love for Eugene - an arrogant and eternally bored young man - who rejects her and leaves her heartbroken. In the second, Eugene lands himself in a duel, embarks on a prolonged period of travel and eventually returns to Russia. Here he encounters a now married Tatyana, realises he loves her, and in one final impassioned speech tries to seduce her, only to be rejected by the duty bound wife. In this production, Opera Bohemia have eschewed the early 1800s setting of the original narrative to reimagine the action in the lead up to the 1917 Revolution; a decision that does add weight to the production as a whole, and the final scenes in particular.
Catriona Clark plays the part of Tatyana well, although she is noticeably more convincing as the sophisticated, cold and controlled Mrs Gremin than the stomach clutching and naïve, younger Tatyana. Her technically strong and beautifully clear vocals soar over the orchestra with ease, delivering the libretto with precise diction – which cannot be said for some of the company. Her opposite number, Douglas Nairne (Eugene), is exciting to listen to, but underwhelming to watch. Somehow he manages to convey so much emotion in his voice without letting it seep through to his facial expressions or movement; not, at least, until they very close of the show, when he finally begins to show some of the emotions indicated in the libretto. A notable performance comes from Ross McInroy as Gremin - although comparatively short, his moment in the spotlight is captivating, and his rich vocals and embodiment of the character make it impossible to tear your eyes away from him.
These performances are complemented well by the eleven piece ensemble, led by Musical Director Alistair Digges. This is the first time Opera Bohemia have used an orchestra, and the extra accompaniment provided an extra depth to the performance. Although, at times, greater sensitivity was required as the orchestra overwhelmed some of the vocals – particularly when the women sang in their lower, quieter registers - these moments were few and far between, and generally the ensemble is an excellent addition.
The staging, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. The first set is a little bland and the lighting design uses some distracting, over-zealous colour washes. In the second half everything is much improved. The set is stripped back to reveal threatening shards of metal – picked up beautifully by the lighting to project ominous shadows on the back wall - which create the unstable atmosphere of the lead up to the Revolution very well.
Eugene Onegin has its flaws, but it is ultimately more good than bad. There are a couple of incredibly strong performances, and the Opera Bohemia team cope well with putting on such a production in a relatively small space.