Eugene Onegin; The Queen of Spades review – labours of love

Bryanston, Dorset; Opera Holland Park, London
Dorset Opera and Opera Holland Park both work wonders on a shoestring with top-notch Tchaikovsky

In Tchaikovsky’s two operatic masterpieces, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, love curdles, hope is shattered, fate wins. By contrast, the love affair between British opera fans and these works, Onegin especially, is long and constant. Were the music not so passionate, the emotions so febrile, the drama so intense, you might call it cosy. Productions tend to be outstanding – Graham Vick’s frequently revived Onegin at Glyndebourne (1994) set the bar; Garsington won praise for its staging in June. Last week, Dorset Opera and Opera Holland Park added their own fine Tchaikovsky endeavours, impressive and rewarding in each case. How on earth those involved transmute their energies, not to mention their tiny budgets, into such high-carat splendour is anyone’s guess.

Dorset Opera, going from strength to strength, falls outside the usual summer festival jamboree. Picnics in idyllic grounds, yes. Formality and black-tie, no. Founded by a local woodwind teacher and conductor, Patrick Shelley, in 1974, it is now run by the expansive, problem-solving Roderick Kennedy, a former bass at opera houses around the world. The company moved in 2011 from squashed premises at Sherborne school (“Memphis is on the left and Thebes is on the right. I leave the rest to you”, was the alleged stage direction for Aida) to Bryanston’s more spacious theatre. Essentially a summer school, it is a perfect union of high professionalism and community effort.

‘True class’: David Rendall and Anna Patalong in Dorset Opera’s Eugene Onegin.
‘True class’: David Rendall and Anna Patalong in Dorset Opera’s Eugene Onegin. Photograph: Fritz Curzon

Local volunteers sew, paint, chivy, usher, host. All music, production and technical staff are experienced professionals. The formidable young chorus, mostly aged 16-25 and from all over the world, pay a reasonable fee for full-board accommodation, costumes and scores. Some bursaries are available, especially for Dorset-based participants. They have a total of 10 days to learn two operas and their productions (Verdi’s Macbeth was performed on alternating nights). For Eugene Onegin this included several combinations of dance steps, simple in themselves maybe, but tricky to carry off with such carefree aplomb. The newly commissioned English translation – the deft and musical work of Christopher Cowell – was a bonus, a fresh alternative to the familiar David Lloyd-Jones version.

Directed with clarity and lack of fuss by Paul Carr, Onegin was conducted with slow-burn authority and conviction by Gavin Carr (they are both singers, as well as brothers). A terrific cast was led by Mark Stone, unusually open and direct in the brutish title role, and Anna Patalong as a serious, intelligent, responsive Tatyana, compelling in voice and stage presence. Tamara Gura shone as the over-eager Olga while Luke Daniel was a youthful, persuasive Lensky, uneven in top notes (he recently switched from baritone to tenor) but bursting with promise.

The cameo roles were a deluxe lineup: the British mezzo-soprano Diana Montague can still sing anything with ease and grace, as her Madame Larina proved. Fiona Kimm’s “elderly” nurse Filippyevna, Brindley Sherratt wise and forgiving as Prince Gremin and, especially, David Rendall as Monsieur Triquet added true class. Rendall (Mr Diana Montague) lavished humour and wit on every phrase in his showpiece aria: all the more affecting since this was a return to the stage after a backstage machinery accident, which effectively forced him into retirement in 2005.

The chorus excelled, and the orchestra – an impromptu band of UK professionals happy to spend a week in Dorset – had the benefit of confident and eloquent woodwind soloists, critical in this score, to carry through uncertainties in elsewhere. A few stray notes are irrelevant when music is played with this level of engagement and pleasure.

Opera Holland Park chose The Queen of Spades, sung in Russian (and like Onegin based on Pushkin), for the last new production of an acclaimed season. While never taking this independent-spirited London festival for granted, it is almost a given that casting will be good or better, orchestra and staging likewise. They were outstanding. Peter Robinson, conducting, urged the City of London Sinfonia into dark territory: after a deceptively quiet opening, the brass explodes into a thunderous canter, and throughout, the low woodwind gurgle and grumble menacingly.

The Queen of Spades at Opera Holland Park.
The Queen of Spades at Opera Holland Park. Photograph: Robert Workman

Moments of wayward ensemble early on, between stage and pit, fell away as the evening progressed and the drama fell headlong into tragedy. Rodula Gaitanou’s staging, with elegant arched designs by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Simon Corder, was handsome and direct in impact. Peter Wedd’s Herman, strong and ardent, was convincingly urgent and mad-eyed. Natalya Romaniw – Garsington’s Tatyana – balanced vocal pliancy and psychological fragility. Grant Doyle, Aled Hall, Richard Burkhard stood out in the ensemble cast. Rosalind Plowright was grand and spectral as the Countess. A triumphant week for all, especially Tchaikovsky.

A footnote on Radio 3: latest audience figures are up to 2.2 million this quarter, the highest in five years and 16% up on the year – a nice flourish before the network’s 70th anniversary next month.

Star ratings (out of 5)
Eugene Onegin
The Queen of Spades ★★★★

The Queen of Spades is in rep at Opera Holland Park, London until 13 August


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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