Eugene Onegin, Blackheath Halls, London<br/>La Rondine, Holland Park, London<br/>The Turn of the Screw, King&rsquo;s Head Theatre, London

A community-based 'Onegin' has the children wide-eyed and draws gasps from pensioners

Anna Picard
Sunday 17 July 2011 00:00

London is too large for a city-wide opera project.

But, in one of the capital's many villages, Blackheath Halls Community Opera annually brings together local children and adults, students from Trinity Laban and a handful of young professionals in one of the calendar's most heartening events. While Hackney and Islington have hosted the pocket-opera boom, Lewisham and Greenwich have made their own mark: mourning the death of Euridice in Gluck's Orfeo, sampling Dulcamara's snake-oil in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love and shucking corn in this year's Eugene Onegin.

Blackheath's hyper-local amateur orchestra embodies the Dunkirk spirit under conductor Nicholas Jenkins's uncompromising beat. It's not the Bolshoi. Filling a hall with friends and relations is easy. But when pensioners gasp as Onegin breaks Tatyana's heart, and children's eyes widen as she breaks his, something profound has happened. Director Harry Fehr's mid-century, mid-Western setting teems with a homespun tide of tea-dresses, denim overalls and GI uniforms. His 100-strong chorus is a close-knit community that quickly spots the superciliousness in Damian Thantrey's Onegin, a riskily unsympathetic interpretation.

Though Fehr emphasises the loving interdependence of the female characters – contrasting Harriet Williams's weary Madame Larina and Linda Hibberd's watchful Filipyevna, with Kate Valentine's introverted Tatyana and Katie Slater's sweet, sunny Olga – the relationship between Nicholas Sharratt's gentle Lensky and Thantrey's sardonic anti-hero is oddly tilted. Small moments, such as Lensky ducking a kiss and Olga's subsequent mortification, are beautifully handled, while Valentine identifies the steel in Tchaikovsky's heroine, with a thrilling, healthful tone and absolute emotional engagement. Much like Amanda Echalaz's breakthrough performance as Holland Park's Floria Tosca, this is a whole-body, whole-voice match of artist to role. Blackheath can be proud that they heard it first.

At Holland Park, Tom Hawkes's production of Puccini's La Rondine aims for little more than wistful charm. Product of the wilderness years between La Fanciulla and Il Trittico, La Rondine seems not to know how seriously to take itself. The opening scene mocks the sentimentality of La Traviata (the plot of which it takes as a model), while Paris and the Riviera sound like Vienna and Tuscany. For much of the opera, the second couple – Hal Cazalet's squirrelly Prunier and Hye-Youn Lee's dizzy Lisette – are more interesting than war-wounded Ruggero (Sean Ruane) and dreamy Magda (Kate Ladner). Yet their muted break-up scene has poignancy and Ladner's singing has class. In the pit, Peter Selwyn presides over some lovely playing from the City of London Sinfonia.

Edward Dick's lean, spare production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw sees OperaUpClose shed its shambolic charm for something sharper. The tiny stage of the King's Head, in Islington, is cocooned in white gauze by designer Signe Beckmann, a bare space for the treatment of Katie Bird's disturbed governess, still haunted by the ghosts of Bly House. David Menezes is both her psychiatrist and Quint, a small-town sadist whose Act II scene with Catrine Kirkman's vampish Miss Jessel hints at a Brady-Hindley knot of sexual compulsion. Laura Casey's spaced-out Mrs Grose is chillingly childlike, while the children – Eleanor Burke and Samuel Woof – ape a warped adulthood in their brittle sophistication, boundless fury and dreadful sadness. Pianist David Eaton plays as though to a far larger house, eloquent in those parts of Britten's score that were written for piano. Take a seat at the back and shiver.

'Eugene Onegin' (020-8463 0100) 2pm today. 'La Rondine' (0300 999 1000) 7.30pm today. 'Turn of the Screw' (0207-478 0160) to 20 Aug.

Next Week:

Anna Picard stays up for the first of the BBC's Late Night Proms

Classical Choice

Gautier and Renaud Capuçon keep it in the family in their BBC Proms performances of Brahms's Double Concerto and Beethoven's Triple Concerto (Royal Albert Hall, Mon & Tue). Alice Coote steps out of Prince Charming's pyjamas and into something more comfortable for an evening of Debussy and Satie mélodies at London's Wigmore Hall (Sat).

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