Russian romance at Bristol's Tobacco Factory

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in an intimate setting

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Eugene Onegin Tobacco FactoryLee Bisset as Tatyana. Photo: Farrows Creative

‘I know very well that there will be no scenic effects and little movement in this opera; but the poetry, humanity and simplicity of the story… will compensate more than enough for these failings’ That was Tchaikovsky’s own assessment of his opera Eugene Onegin, when he wrote to his brother in 1877.

In an era that saw the premiere of Verdi’s Aida set in Ancient Egpyt, Tchaikovsky went against the tide of fashion with an opera set in contemporary Russia. The story is taken from Pushkin’s verse novel Yevgeny Onegin, which describes how a naïve country girl, Tatyana, infatuated with novels, becomes enamoured with a city youth visiting the village, Onegin. She writes him an impetuous letter and he rejects her love – an action which leads to consequences neither of them could have foreseen.

Eugene OneginRichard Studer’s production at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol – sung in English – is on an intimate scale: a spotlight has been focussed on the story’s bleak heart and conductor Jonathan Lyness’s reduced score works well. The reduced cast and orchestra (12 musicians), combined with the in-the-round staging create a real sense of the claustrophobia of rural life.

Soprano Lee Bisset as Tatyana is earnest and bookish and her duets with sister Olga (mezzo Stephanie Lewis) are guilelessly disarming. In the famous letter scene – in which Tatyana composes the letter to Onegin declaring her love for him – she grips the audience and takes us with her on her nocturnal wanderings through Romantic visions conjured by dashing youths real and imagined.

Baritone Grant Doyle (pictured right, with Lee Bisset) in the title role is every inch the heart-breaker, but this Onegin is more victim of fate than amoral malignancy. The story is all the more captivating as a result. Tenor Michael Bracegirdle is a moving Lensky, fiancé to the wide-eyed Olga, whose finest hour was also his last – in the aria immediately before the fateful duel with Onegin. Without exception, the cast’s enunciation is immaculate.

Another of the production’s highlights is the singing of the female chorus. Despite only consisting of a handful of singers, the group’s sound is lush and it's a real treat to hear so close-up.

This is a production which uses the bare minimum in staging, performers and even space, to tell a story with huge emotional impact – and pulls it off with apparent ease. A treat.

Eugene Onegin was an Opera Project production. Photo: Farrows Creative