The Assembly Rooms Theatre was the ideal venue to host Durham Opera Ensemble’s adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. With its scarlet velvet seats, miniature gold chandeliers, and a painting of the starry night sky adorning the ceiling, this small yet picturesque theatre served as the perfect setting for co-directors Caitlin Hayton’s and Emma Tsoi’s undoubtedly dazzling rendition of the classic Russian opera.
Set in the provincial St Petersburg countryside in the 1820s, Tchaikovsky’s three-act opera follows the eponymous Onegin (portrayed by Edward Wenborn), a proud man who rejects the romantic advances of the sensitive, scholarly Tatyana (portrayed by Poppy Metherell), and lives to regret murdering his close friend Lensky (portrayed by Alistair McCubbin) in a toxic and ultimately futile duel. First performed in Moscow’s Maly Theatre in 1879, Durham Opera Ensemble’s commendable adaptation, despite its small-scale, does nothing to belittle the sparkle of Tchaikovsky’s acclaimed composition. Packed with lavish and eye-catching costumes, a sturdy cast, and a perfectly executed orchestral score, conducted by Leo Thomson, as a first-time opera goer, Eugene Onegin certainly did not disappoint.
Of course, Poppy Metherell’s performance as Tatyana deserves particular praise – delivering her arias with enviable ease, Metherell’s voice is astonishing, giving her the ability to convey the intense vulnerability of Tatyana’s character: her innocence, heartbreak, and transition into a grand, yet emotionally frangible aristocrat still weakened by her love for Onegin. The rest of the cast is equally as impressive – Alice Liddle, with her spirited and warm portrayal of Larina, excelled vocally, as did Olivia Jones in her charmingly likeable embodiment of Olga. The list could go on; Durham Opera Ensemble’s cast effortlessly erupts with talent that makes this production of Eugene Onegin such an unmissable performance.
Whilst the opera is infused with a tragic subject matter, this does not mean that it’s gloomy; the particularly strong chorus, and the more light-hearted performances from Olga (Jones) and the Nurse (portrayed by Sophie Horrocks) take away some of the melancholy that stalks Onegin and Tatyana, quite simply, making for genuinely enjoyable viewing. The plot – rather to my surprise – was not a difficult thread to follow; the central story of Eugene Onegin is not subsumed into sweeping, gratuitous arias – the operatic style only serves to enhance Alexander Pushkin’s original story.
Edward Wenborn brings a distant yet charming quality to the eponymous role of Onegin – outwardly the Russian Mr Darcy – a character who loses our sympathy as quickly as he gains it. However, both Wenborn, and McCubbin (portraying his doomed friend Lensky), are highly commendable and serve as the strong male leads within the opera. Although their chemistry does not appear quite as organic as the interrelations between the four memorable female characters: Tatyana, Olga, Larina and the Nurse, the entirety of the cast collectively blends together to form a symphony of talent.
With only seven weeks of rehearsals to perfect the complexities of Tchaikovsky’s music, the large-scale dance sequences (choreographed by Ava Cohen) and perfect execution of the arias, it is made strikingly clear that co-directors Hayton and Tsoi, and musical director Leo Thomson have worked tirelessly alongside their degrees to bring Durham Opera Ensemble’s Eugene Onegin to life.
During the ambient moments before the curtain rose, I read in the programme that Tchaikovsky entrusted the first performance of his opera to the students of Moscow Conservatory in the hope of capturing the sincerity and candour of his opera – certainly, the students of Durham University have excelled in their replication of this. For both frequent attendees of the opera, or for first-time goers like myself, this sparkling and captivating story headed by a highly skilled collection of students, is undoubtedly one of the best of Epiphany term’s theatre productions.
Image: Durham Opera Ensemble