The mind, the imagination, reality, and psychological projection are the main themes of this new opera: Onegin and Tatiana. Directed by Guido Martin-Brandis, this performance serves as a brilliant introduction to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the opera on which it’s based. Pushkin’s famous characters from his novel: Eugene Onegin and Tatiana were paired with Tchaikovsky’s music. Martin-Brandis also added the music of the composers: Debussy, Mahler, Rachmaninov and Strauss, all part of a generation that began to share a fascination with the human psyche.
The opera was short, with a running time of only an hour and a half, but this meant that the plot moved at a swift pace, with a lot of ground to cover. Presented in an intimate and funky basement studio in the Arcola Theatre, with a small audience and cast: the atmosphere encouraged an intense performance. This heightened all the more so by our dear unrequited lovers, at times physically interacting with audience members and making direct eye contact.
Opening the opera was the narrator (Joan Plunkett) who told us of Tatiana’s (Isolde Roxby) dissatisfaction with the real world, preferring to live in her own lively imagination; she woos the audience with her first song, Strauss’s Arabella. And, after meeting her neighbour Onegin (Nicolas Dwyer), we do not see any particular chemistry between them, until she dreams of him that night. Tatiana writes in a manic state her confessions of love for him that she is now suddenly bound by, and with dramatic emphasis from Tchaikovsky’s music, sends off a letter to Onegin in the hope that he will reciprocate. Onegin doesn’t, telling her that she needs to control herself and grow up. The first instance of unrequited love in the opera has been unveiled.
The inner psyche of Tatiana at this point is that of heartbreak, and this creates an opportunity for the light projectors used in the performance to gain real authority over her. Surtitles and images had been projected to help tell the story, including images of leaves, paintings and translations. Now, we see a profound image projected of her face side profile, with a smaller image of Onegin’s full body built within. Her mind is consumed with him. Tatiana aches for Onegin, whilst Onegin aches for life. In his general depressive state, he adventures aimlessly for six years in an attempt to regain his sense of passion for life. When Onegin returns, he is convinced that he is now in love with Tatiana.
A complete role reversal, and now projected, a side profile of Onegin’s face, with Tatiana’s whole body trapped inside. The simplicity of the set, and costumes that only subtly change at a couple of moments, allows for the complexity of the human psyche to be the sole focus of the production. Martin-Brandis made a crucial point in his director’s note: “Both Tatiana and Onegin have radical and instantaneous transformations of their inner worlds triggered by the simple event of meeting another person in a particular time and place”. This opera closely examines the ever-changing mind and relationships, in ways that are true to life, and that can be projected through art.
The emotions of love between these two people worked in ways against both their favours: Tatiana ends empowered through tears, stating in song that she will not leave her prince husband for Onegin, whilst Onegin, quite the opposite, ends in a state of despair.
The pianist (Richard Hall) seamlessly carried the opera, and was part of the reason there were a few sniffles in the audience at intense moments in the classically beautiful music. The singing from Tatiana and Onegin was deeply moving, and the narrator played a big role in aiding the audience’s understanding of the piece from start to finish. I really enjoyed this new opera and the accessibility of it for inexperienced opera-goers!