Onegin and Tatiana was an absorbing and very stimulating evening rather than a wholly successful one; but it certainly gave the audience many new perspectives on a piece with which we think we are familiar and perhaps will have encouraged those who know neither the Tchaikovsky opera nor Pushkin poem to go back to the originals with fresh understanding and curiosity.

‘One gin’ insisted my phone as I sought out more details of this new production at Grimeborn, and sometimes predictive text finds a deeper truth than it can possibly know. The purist expecting Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will probably need some prior fortification before approaching this show; but were she to have more than one she would be in danger of missing a subtle and shrewd exploration of one of the most intriguingly adult and mature opera plots that there is, and some very original musical juxtapositions to boot.

Grimeborn offers many original approaches to traditional operatic repertory which make a virtue out of the necessity of limited resources. One of them is to abstract one key relationship from an individual work and hold it under musical and psychological scrutiny in a kind of revelatory isolation not possible when experiencing the full stage work. This production is an example of this approach at its best. The twists and turns of the relationship between bored, cynical Onegin and young, impressionable and innocent Tatiana are at the heart of Tchaikovsky’s opera but given the bustle of other characters and crowds around them there are only incidental moments when it is possible to explore their own states of mind – Onegin in particular is all swagger and brittle surface until the very end of the opera; and that is one of the difficulties in making his character credible in performance. So there is certainly a real subject here worth exploring…..

Director Guido Martin-Brandis has decided to take the music written for the two characters in the opera, whether together or in isolation, and fill it out with excerpts from the opera and lieder repertory of composers writing in the decades after Tchaikovsky. So we have a duet from Strauss’ Arabella, songs of deep inward reflection and hermetic isolation from Samuel Barber, and Debussy’s gorgeous early song ‘Beau Soir’, together with rare but relevant songs by Rachmaninov and – more predictably – Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. This is a real musical feast and for the most part admirably delivered by the two singers, finding both tasteful delivery and character-relevance in their delivery. However, whether it offers full dramatic coherence is less clear.

Projection is the key to understanding this production – on a number of levels. As the programme notes explain both Onegin and Tatiana make the mistake at either end of the opera of projecting the image of a saviour onto the other without the relevant knowledge of self or other to make that claim remotely plausible. They do so because they are in different ways solitary souls whose complicated inner worlds fail to engage plausibly with the outer external world of experience. Some of the songs performed here helpfully tease out and elaborate that sense of rich psychological introversion. As a result, when we get to hear the key scenes of confrontation from the original opera they do have an added resonance and layering that is helpful.

The same cannot be said, sadly, for the clumsy apparatus of visual projection which provides the main backdrop for the evening. There are three overhead projectors across which a plethora of slides are laid by the performers. All credit to them for never getting the order wrong, but what starts as a marginally helpful device becomes in time distracting and tyrannical in the way that it takes away the performers from the business of their performances. Not all the slides were helpful either – the texts of the songs to be sure, but the atmospheric nature shots were far more marginal when the music already provided an adequate embodiment and correlate in performance. At the very least video projection would have overcome this practical clumsiness and released the singers and actors to do their work.

There are four performers. As Tatiana Isolde Roxby makes the right journey from passionate naivete to poised, careful experience and shows us the suffering and costs along the way. Her ‘letter’ scene was the highpoint it should be, both musically and dramatically. We were also able to pick up the resonances from the composer’s own personal life that serve to make the scene such an empathetic moment about risking vulnerability and rejection and whether the price is worth paying. We were all indeed projecting from our own lives at that point….

Nicolas Dwyer’s Onegin was a notable dramatic creation too that made you want to see him perform the role in full on stage, with the added layering of his friendship and rivalry with Lensky that was inevitably missing here. He brought out not only the glib and patronising tone of Onegin’s dismissal of Tatiana, but also the self-loathing which translates into a brusque surface. Rarely has the final confrontation been so searing for both sides – the point in the action where the accumulation of psychological commentary beforehand really came into its explanatory own. But one still missed the countervailing force of Gremin, Tatiana’s husband, as an embodiment of another, worldly wise, path taken.

Joan Plunkett filled the gaps and some of the characters for us as a narrator figure. There were some awkward corners to turn here, though no fault of the actor, and this is a point where a dramaturg might tweak things to advantage, or where a third character actor could more forcefully project the voices of reason and common sense that try to restrain the two principals and which in the original contribute so strongly to the varieties of maturity of vision in the opera as a whole.

Richard Hall, in period costume too, conveyed as much of the orchestral textures as he could from a very unresponsive upright, though he was really under pressure at points of sharp intensity. His accompaniments to the inserted songs were consistently idiomatic and sensitive.

The limited space of Studio Two and the layout of the overhead projectors restricted movement and reinforced a sense of clutter; but that was not altogether at variance with the over-stuffed interiors of the 1870s in which this evening was set, and the period costumes were both apt and easy on the eye.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Onegin and Tatiana 
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…