At risk of deserving serious rebuke, I’ll confess I’ve always found it hard to care about the plot of Eugene Onegin: an arrogant nobleman rejects an infantile, infatuated teenage girl only to fall at her feet years later in her husband’s house. In the meantime, Onegin duels and kills her sister’s fiancé over a disagreement so minor it’s almost infuriating to witness. It’s hard not to feel as if the whole thing’s a bit unnecessary. Whilst Pushkin can draw you into such machinations over the time it takes to read 390 stanzas, a two and a half hour performance is far less of an investment, and thus demands a level of instant commitment that is not always easy to conjure up.
Once I’ve witnessed Onegin shoot his close friend in a duel that escalates from his own banal idiocies, as Act Three progresses I’m not so committed to his sudden passion for Tatiana. All these groanings and moanings, however, dwindle to total irrelevance amidst Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, which needs no elaudations from me. However grinch-like I am, it’s impossible to be irritated by Tatiana’s letter scene, or Lensky’s arioso in Act One, or the horrors of the duel scene. Jack Holton’s deep, rolling baritone carries Onegin’s melodies with warmth and ease, which beautifully plays off Alexandria Wreggelsworth’s mellifluous, soaring soprano voice that was delightfully centred and full. The two together are, gratifyingly, the nexus of the production.
The People’s Opera’s Eugene Onegin was a feat of achievement in challenging circumstances. The St John’s College Auditorium was no friend to the orchestra, which was crammed in with the timpani and harp placed on the edge of the stage itself for want of space; the fact that the opera simply stayed together was an achievement in itself, let alone that it produced a successful performance. The strings playing two to a part (difficult in any case) in that dry, concrete acoustic should have been an impossible task, but despite fortes being significantly easier than pianos they made a lovely sound expertly conducted by Hannah Schneider. The woodwind were particularly impressive, producing the most stunning warm, delicate and tender lines.
One of the most beautiful moments occurred when the singers moved into the aisles of the stalls to sing the chorus at the Larin ball; an inspired decision that allowed the voices to balance so well with the orchestra amidst the otherwise overly-zealous acoustic. Dominic Bevan really came into his own with Lensky’s aria ‘Куда, куда вы удалились…’ and Grace Lovelass’ Olga was gleefully easy in presence and vocal capacity. This semi-abridged version (running for 1 hour 45 minutes) was a little incoherent at times, occasionally involving extended orchestral passages accompanied by an empty stage (the polonaise that opens Act Three is such a gift to inventive, interesting direction on stage that I wondered whether something more could have been done with it). But as I said to begin with, it’s somewhat irrelevant whether or not the narrative makes sense when the score is so glorious. It’s an opera that draws rising joy and deep distress into conversation with each other, throwing both into relief, which The People’s Opera and Oxford Alternative Orchestra inhabited with powerful intelligence.