Wednesday 15 August 2018

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre

The idea of fiction and reality is a key theme of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Take for instance the moment Tatiana visits Onegin’s mansion and questions his character, an amalgam of literary heroes.

This newly devised piece from director Guido Martin-Brandis is based predominantly on Tchaikovsky’s opera, but like Onegin it is a fabrication of personas – here musical heroes. The plot is reduced to its central couple of Onegin and Tatiana, narrated in English by Joan Plunkett to drive the story with clarity for the audience. Musical pieces are then taken from both Tchaikovsky and a number of later composers – Mahler, Debussy, Strauss and Rachmaninov – which add depth to the characterisation and some musical variety. It is a well-constructed opera that offers Pushkin’s story in miniature: an intense and melodramatic portrayal of unrequited love between an arrogant dandy and a shy landowner’s daughter.

The production’s main gimmick, though, is that of projection. Director Martin-Brandis cites, in his programme notes, his interest in psychological projection – in particular positive projection where characters are upheld as a paragon of goodness in an almost spiritual manner. Here, this manifests as literal projection on the back wall to reflect the inner-psychology of the characters; the choice of composers, too, are direct contemporaries of Freud and Jung and were influenced by the psychologically suggestive poems and novels of the time.

The idea of projection is an intriguing one, but in practice it is an inelegant solution to surtitles. Three overhead projectors are utilised, with images, poetry and the libretto adding setting and literary context to the songs (sung in their varying native languages: Russian, German and French). This requires the narrator to frequently and distractingly switch the projectors on and off to, essentially, turn the page of the libretto. At times there are clever parallels drawn through the choice of images, and letters written by characters are blown up for all to see. That is, when they can be read – the projections are often too small for the full audience to view. A more polished production is required here to not only offer surtitles to the audience, but to really dig into the psychology of these characters as Martin-Brandis so keenly wishes to.

The musical choices are also predominantly solos as we follow the thoughts of each character. This is very much about the Romantic idea of individuals wrestling with their feelings as opposed to a couple drawn together through fierce chemistry, magnetic attraction and sexual desire. The climax of the piece is a duet where these feelings eventually spill out of their heads through their words, but the structure overall doesn’t allow for a development of their relationship.

But then, this is a more abstract portrayal of psychology than a true depiction of a passionate relationship – with some beautiful music to boot. There is fine dramatic singing here from both Isolde Roxby (Tatiana) and Nicolas Dwyer (Onegin), who expertly navigate a mixture of languages and composers to create consistent characterisation. Pianist Richard Hall is also excellent, ensuring this production is a delight to listen to.


Watch: Onegin and Tatiana was performed at the Arcola Theatre as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival.

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre

Onegin and Tatiana @ The Arcola Theatre