Review: ‘Eugene Onegin’

With extraordinary talent from both singers and the orchestra, in Durham Opera Ensemble’s production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, is an unforgettable evening not to be missed.

I am somewhat of an opera novice, and this traditionally Russian opera initially seemed an ambitious choice for a student production. In consequence I am amazed at how well they carry it, and how professionally and successfully all the challenging numbers are delivered. The plot of the opera is a relatively simple one, which follows the development of a cocky and overly self-regarding young man Eugene, as he estranges himself from his friends and potential romantic interest, before realising the error of his ways.

The show may be named after the male lead, but the real star is Tatyana, played by the incredible Poppy Metherell. Her clear, strong soprano voice, with a genuine operatic quality, is breath-taking in its professionalism and the ease with which she hit the high notes. She performs a quite lengthy Aria in the first act, in which she is composing a love letter to Eugene. This song perfectly showcases her vocal prowess, her amazing range and strength of her voice. She also portrays the emotion of the girlish excitement and restlessness well, despite the overall concentration on the music, and adds little touches and mannerisms which make Tatyana a truly believable and likable character. This characterisation emphasises Tatyana’s character growth, becoming more self-assured and mature as the opera progresses, and ultimately holding her own against the renewed advances of the desperate Eugene.

Eugene Onegin, played by Edward Wenborn, is also an impressive talent in this cast. He portrays Eugene’s rakish charm appealingly, and the excellent quality of his voice blends extremely well with the voice of Alistair McCubbin, who plays his friend Lensky. McCubbin’s voice is certainly to be commended, however it doesn’t always feel as if he is comfortable on the stage, and often during his solos he is concentrating so much on singing that he fails to make convincing eye contact with his co-performers. Despite this, he is an excellent performer and his complicated friendship with Eugene, and subsequent jealousy, is well built up to its tragic end.

Olivia Jones in the part of Olga is also an excellent addition. I have recently seen Jones in a production of Disco Inferno, but it is clear that that the style of music didn’t truly do her voice justice, and she is able to shine much more in this role. Her lower voice not only complements Metherell’s excellently, but also has a strength and confidence which makes her solos a highlight of the opera. She is also notably one of the best actors, her energy and constant smile is endearing and makes her more straightforwardly likeable than some of the other characters.

The orchestra, conducted by Leo Thomson, is an invaluable part of this production. They accompany the singing flawlessly and skilfully throughout, and their musical interludes between scenes are just as enjoyable and immersive as the set numbers. The score and the use of the different instruments is also noteworthy; the drums, cello, violin and oboe build the tension and intensity for the climatic scenes, while the harp, flute and clarinet give a lighter touch for the romantic and comic parts.

The vocals of the chorus were surprisingly impressive, and I believe that any one of them could have held a solo if given the opportunity. The singing and music are certainly the area in which this show shines, and the aspect which was quite rightly most focused on. The dancing, in places, is a little awkward and shuffling, but this is minor and fails to detract from the overall impressive effect.

Eugene Onegin is being performed again on Thursday the 28th and Friday the 29th of February at the Assembly Rooms Theatre.

By Isabel Carmichael-Davis

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