Eugene Onegin - English Touring Opera - Hackney Empire, 9 March 2012
You don't need a load of fancy scenery to tell a story, as English Touring Opera's minimal but effective staging proves. First seen in 2007, James Conway's production employs little more than a large panel in the middle. Lit by turns as window, mirror and screen, it conjures up orchard and ballroom with surprising ease. Lavish period costumes provide eye candy for the sweet-toothed.
Where Deborah Warner's recent ENO Onegin started to go wrong was in creating vast, empty spaces in which to play out the opera's intimate drama. Here, everything is restored to its proper, human scale. Singing it in English only enhances that.
The lush and surprisingly full-blown sound Michael Rosewell conjured from his small orchestra was what first drew me in. But it was Sarah-Jane Davies who gave the evening its heart with the hint of vulnerability in her silvery soprano. Her Tatyana was unaffectedly withdrawn and bookish and immediately sympathetic. Her modesty made her letter to Onegin properly momentous. And in her final scene, the shy country girl was never far below the polished surface.
The rest of the cast proved a good match. Niamh Kelly's vivacious Olga sparkled in contrast to the introverted Tatyana. Nicholas Lester bravely played Onegin as Pushkin wrote him - 'a cipher' - sophisticated, noble, but heartless and profoundly unsympathetic. As Filippyevna, Frances McCafferty trod the fine line between homely warmth and comedy with a veteran's expertise. Jaewoo Kim's Lensky would have integrated better if he hadn't turned to face the audience each time he sang. Stephen Holloway sang the grizzled Gremin's aria with a touching dignity.
Sadly, storage is expensive, so this may well be the last outing for this distinguished production, which easily betters both the misguided ENO and overblown Royal Opera versions.