OPERA REVIEW / A messy affair: Adrian Jack on an uneven Onegin by British Youth Opera

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The Independent Culture
British Youth Opera is a springboard for young professionals and is currently showing new productions of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, both sung in English, in a short season at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Eugene Onegin on Wednesday evening was a very mixed affair. The opera is a romantic melodrama which needs two alluring principals (Tatyana and Onegin), two who at least engage our sympathy (Olga and Lensky) and three mature characters who counterbalance the volatility of the young lovers. It also needs a good orchestra. BYO's orchestra, whose members all looked extremely young, only sporadically rose to the occasion. Under their conductor Mark Shanahan, the dance scenes were quite lively, but the all important outpourings of melancholy on the strings were ragged and out-of-tune.

Fortunately, the pretty Swedish soprano Linda Tuvas made a strong Tatyana. She has already got some way with her career and it showed. It didn't matter much that her vocal character was too sunny and straight to sound Slavonic, though it mattered a bit more that many of her words were unclear. She was a little on the cool side, but her acting had a convincing naturalness.

A singer's vocal quality develops with age, and at present Garry Magee (Onegin) is a light, tenorish baritone with a keen attack which, with his dark good looks, suggested with more than usual adequacy the Byronic anti- hero. As most Hollywood heart- throbs are well below 6ft tall, it's hard to protest that he was a bit small for his lady, and he moved well, hurling himself stylishly into positions of ardent appeal in the final scene and becoming almost alarmingly violent.

Onegin's friend Lensky should surely be a plausible lover too, even if Olga takes him for granted - else why did Tchaikovsky give him such an outpouring of feeling in Act 2? Darren Fox sang stiffly and with caution, as if afraid to show any emotion at all: no wonder Olga preferred Onegin's company. As for Olga herself, Louise Mott was game enough in a part which didn't allow her to show much more than high spirits.

Characters of older generations are obviously going to present young singers with a special challenge, requiring rather more in the way of acting skills. Gaenor Ellis as Tatyana's mother conveyed no sense of maturity at all, though she sang decently enough. Rachel Lambert as the Nurse was stiff and inhibited. But Gerard Delrez brought considerably more experience and maturity to the part of Tatyana's elderly husband Prince Gremin and sang his rather cosy, salonish aria in Act 3 with affecting simplicity. Here, at long last, director Wilfred Judd had the chorus freeze. Would they had done that more often, because in the animated scenes too many of them were plainly unenthusiastic actors.

Madeline Herbert's Empire- style costumes looked the real thing. Except in the Letter Scene, however, which had a conventional set, the minimal elements of Claudia Mayer's stage design - grey, knee-high blocks which were moved into different positions to suggest walls inside or out, and one rectangular screen hoisted to represent the sky or lowered to provide a sort of visual baffle-board - just seemed too much and too little at the same time.

On the whole, despite two strong principals, it was a disappointing evening and left a very confused impression of British Youth Opera's standards.

Further performances at Sadler's Wells on 15, 17 September (071-278 8916); and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 7, 9 Sept (031- 529 6000).

(Photograph omitted)