With community opera hitting the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons, it’s great to report that Blackheath Halls’ sixth annual production is a wholly positive experience.
The producers seem to be getting more and more ambitious, this year taking on Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The opera certainly presents challenges, fully met by Harry Fehr’s faintly 50s production. He skillfully avoids the need for a grandeur beyond the company’s reach in the second act ballroom scene by setting it as a community get together, with musical chairs the main attraction. Meanwhile, there’s a whiff of the palatial in the Hall’s white and gold pillars and decorated ceiling.
In the final act he takes a novel approach too, with a highly effective mass of gold and red chairs suggesting an auditorium within a theatre, the lovesick Onegin creating a commotion in the back row while glammed-up society looks on disapprovingly. When the hall empties, he and his now unattainable Tatyana have a forest of obstacles to wade through. That, and a novel solution to Lensky’s death, are typical of Fehr’s inventiveness (credit too to designer Tom Oldham whose oblique podium fulfills a number of purposes).
While the crowd scenes burst with movement, the evening focuses on the cast of professionals, a combination of seasoned singers, rising stars and students of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Kate Valentine’s superb Tatyana dominates (it surely won’t be long before we see this performance in one of the big houses), while Nicholas Sharratt (last year’s Nemorino here) has loads of appeal as Lensky and Damian Thantrey’s slicked-back, cold-fish Onegin impresses.
Andrew Greenan is luxury casting as Gremin and Harriet Williams’ youthful Larina and Linda Hibberd’s sympathetic Filipyevna lend equally strong support. Students Katie Slater (Olga), Panos Ntourntoufis (Triquet), Simon Dyer (Zaretsky), Simon Marsh (Steward) and David William-Matthews (Captain) show bags of promise.
The chorus teems with detail and overflows with the enthusiastic involvement of a range of local schools, one of the most heartwarming aspects of this project. The orchestra, despite the odd inaccuracy, play Tchaikovsky’s glorious score with zest under conductor Nicholas Jenkins and, all told, it’s another triumph for the Blackheath Halls community opera project, a ray of light in difficult times.
- Simon Thomas