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lN the world of pantomime all ends happily ever after - not so in opera! And definitely not in Tchaikovsky,s Eugene Onegin! lt all ends so unhappily!

Last week Eugene Onegin was the Guildford Opera Company’s latest production: I joined a substantial audience at The Electric Theatre.

The plotline of love and romance is countered with brooding rnoments of lust and sexual jealousy that ultimately leads to a duel and death. It's strong stuff and I can report the GOC went for it with all pistols blazing.

Stephen Oliver firmly grasped stage direction, acknowledging that the costs could soar from the differing locations indicated plus a cast of over 5O requiring costume changes for rural frolics and society Balls - requirements that could bankrupt the average theatre company.

Astutely Oliver opted for a basic set to which he added necessary props and recruited members from the Woking Dance Space. The WDS members created plausible peasant celebrations which echoed Slavonic traditions and later a colourful Ball scene although more attention is needed as the chorus exits. On two occasions it was a painful amble off when a brisk departure would have added pace to the growing tensions.

The GOC attracts professional soloists with chorus members recruited from amateur enthusiasts.

Onegin was sung by baritone Stuart Orme. Orme trained at the Royal Northern College of Music and had a clear concept of the role's complexity. I believe he would be among the first to acknowledge with lsolde Roxby he had a rivetinq Tatyana. Her voice soared through the auditorium with conviction, despair bewilderment but it was a delivery always in control. ln full support was a stunning 10 strong orchestra under the baton of Musical Director Lewis Gaston,giving us a deceptively rounded sound.

Yes, it ends unhappily and I left somewhat dazed but the audience I had joined fully approved and at the curtain stomped and cheered.

 Jeff Thomson

Surrey Advertiser, December 2022

Noda SE, December 2022

Tchaikovsky pays homage here to the great Russian poet Pushkin, in that he uses Pushkin’s great verse novel Eugene Onegin as the basis for his opera, in which Pushkin explores the social divide between St Petersburg and provincial Russia. Tchaikovsky chooses to focus on the lives of four of Pushkin’s characters: Tatyana, Onegin, Lensky and Olga. He focuses on their growth in self-knowledge and their suffering.

Tchaikovsky’s expressive lyricism gives a fitting voice to the emotional turmoil at the heart of the novel. The opera premiered in 1879 in Moscow, in 1892 in Germany and England, but strangely only in 1920 in the USA.

The set was very simple, yet very effective. The plot revolves around two letters. So projected diagonally across the stage was one letter, I believe in Russian, and, set at the opposite angle across the back of the set, and I believe in French, was the other letter. These stayed throughout the proceedings. A row of pens, standing nib upward provided a kind of ‘curtain’, which could be pulled across or back to create a more intimate space. I found the ‘geometry’ of it, if you will, very pleasing.

The two young sisters Tatyana and Olga sported pretty, long summer dresses with puffed sleeves. Their mother was in grey with a white apron – her daily work attire. Landowners the family were, but not rich ones. The chorus wore simple peasant clothes with shawls and headscarves. The ball in St Petersburg, on the other hand, saw Tatyana decked out in a stunning emerald green gown. The other ladies all wore fine gowns of black, steel grey or subdued shades of blue with fascinating white headdresses. This colour scheme was very effective, suggesting the mood of the final act.

For the party scene and the ball scene we were treated to some fine dancing from members of Woking Dance Space, choreographed by Gretchen Fox Kiefer.

As ever, Musical Director Lewis Gaston produced a fine balance of orchestra and voices.

One very good thing that Guildford Opera always does, is provide a pre-show talk with the two directors on one of the performance days. This gives such a useful background to the opera.  For example, in this case we learnt of similarities between Tchaikovsky’s own life and that of Onegin, and the influence of western composers on his work in this opera, as well as the influence of national Russian dance and folk music.

The opera is an examination of contrasts: innocence (Tatyana) versus experience (Onegin); quiet book-loving girl (Tatyana) versus practical, fun-loving, confident sister (Olga).  The poet (Lensky) falls for the more down-to-earth girl, whilst the naïve, quieter Tatyana falls for the less dreamy, more pragmatic, and worldly wise Onegin. So opposites attract. Two letters divide the first half from the second, the one from love-crazed Tatyana to the unimpressed Onegin, then that from smitten Onegin to the contented and happily married Tatyana.

When the curtain opened onto the pared back set, with ‘just’ the projection of the two letters, I felt a tiny bit disappointed not to see lavish scenery. However, I soon felt how successful this decision was, as it allowed total focus on the drama and the interaction between the various characters. Great direction by Stephen Oliver.

Tatyana, as we first see her, is a romantically inclined innocent teenager, given to devouring romantic novels. She cannot understand her mother’s and her nurse’s resignation to their fate as the wives in arranged marriages. Within minutes of first meeting Onegin, the friend of the family’s neighbour Lensky, she becomes totally infatuated with him, and decides impulsively in the middle of the night, to write him a long letter declaring her love for him. Isolde Roxby gave a magnificent performance, both as this charmingly naïve young girl, full of passion and tenderness, and later in the final act when the roles are reversed and Onegin pledges undying love for HER, once again in the form of a letter. Here she is a mature married woman, who makes the decision to stay faithful to her older husband, despite her continuing love for Onegin. Roxby plays both Tatyanas with fine acting as well as superb singing.

Jolly Olga, that positive soul, who yet experiences tragedy, was played very well by Harriet Kirk, once again good acting skills as well as a fine voice. The relationship between the family and their long-serving nurse Filipyevna (Diane Vivian) was very touching.

James Beddoe gave a wonderful performance as the gentle Lensky. He managed to project the personality of this enthusiastic, loyal, and innocent young man exceedingly well, his voice in his big aria surely caused many hearts to melt, and his hot-blooded anger at Onegin’s, in his opinion, betrayal in dancing so long with Olga, was very believable.

The role of Onegin himself shares certain similarities with Mr Darcy – cool, aloof, rather dismissive of these poor provincials, a certain casual arrogance. Reality strikes home though as he realises the awfulness of having to go through a duel with his friend, and great remorse, obviously, after he kills him. Amazement and delight as he observes Tatyana much later as the mature, glamorous wife of a prince, followed by a kind of arrogant astonishment that she rejects his advances. Stuart Orme made this role his own, and his singing was masterful.

All four of these main characters were a delight to watch, and Guildford Opera deserves great credit for its casting here. In fact, all roles were well cast, and memorable, from the girls’ mother Madame Larina (Veronika Rettich) through to Zaretsky (Geoff James).

Kevin John gave a delightful cameo performance as Monsieur Triquet at Tatyana’s naming day party, and George Coates was a fine Prince Gremin, whose performance made us understand how Tatyana could have grown to love him over the years, and wish to stay true to him.

Great solo performances all round then. But Guildford Opera would be nothing without its chorus. The sound they produce never fails to impress and thrill. Sadly in Eugene Onegin they are not on stage for very much of the time, but when they are it is wonderful.

Author: Pauline Surrey