Event review: Eugene Onegin performed at Whitgift School, south Croydon

By - Friday 24th March, 2017

Try not to sulk if you don’t get the girl, there’s still a marvellous soundtrack

Photo by Whitgift School, South Croydon, used with permission.

My most recent experiences of opera have been scaled-down versions by Opera Up Close and Charles Court Opera, so I was looking forward to a full-scale performance of Eugene Onegin at Whitgift School in south Croydon. The production ran from Sunday 12th to Saturday 18th March and boys from the school were joined by girls from the Old Palace School of John Whitgift in Waddon along with professional soloists for the main roles, as well as members of the Whitgift Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra. I could tell from the opening bars of the overture that we were in for a classy performance.

I like a good spoiler, so I’d checked out the plot in advance. It turned out to be quite straightforward, as follows:

  • Young lady (Tatyana) writes love letter to young man (Onegin)
  • Young man rejects young lady, explaining that he is not husband material
  • Young man is annoyed that people are gossiping about him and the young lady and flirts with the fiancée of his mate (Lensky), who is the young lady’s sister (Olga)
  • Young man challenges his mate to a duel and shoots him dead
  • Young man feels guilty and goes off travelling
  • Young man returns several years later, by which time young lady is married to his cousin (Gremin)
  • Young man regrets his haste in rejecting the young lady, whom he now realises he loves after all
  • Young lady tells young man that she still loves him but is going to stick by her husband
  • Young man sulks face down in the snow

The simplicity of this plot was counterbalanced by the depth which the professional soloists brought to the main characters. Jon Stainsby was suitably haughty in the title role; Polly Leech as Olga was as giddy as any of the schoolgirls; Peter Aisher was boy-next-door likeable as Lensky; David Durham was a cuddly bear as Gremin whilst Rannveig Káradóttir handled Tatyana’s transition from naive young country girl to society wife with great subtlety.

Imagine the hours of rehearsal that they must have put in

The young performers also held their own alongside the professionals in some of the smaller yet demanding roles. I particularly enjoyed the irony of the beautifully sung scene in which girls playing the elderly mother and servant reminisced about their youth. The two musical feats which proved beyond doubt that we were dealing with classy musicians were Tatyana singing whilst lying down and the brass section playing quietly.

I read in the programme that Eugene Onegin is the favourite opera of Whitgift school’s headmaster, Dr Barnett, who is soon to retire. I’d take five accomplished performances of my favourite opera over an alarm clock any day. I can’t imagine how many hours of rehearsal the young people involved must have put in. I can tell them one thing from personal musical experience: if you find yourselves involved in a performance of Eugene Onegin in, say, 2047, you will remember every note and you will remember every word.

Sue Harling

Sue Harling

Sue Harling moved to Croydon from Leicester twenty-three years ago via Bath, Krefeld and other parts of London. She lives with her family in Waddon, where there is plentiful access to her favourite pastimes: tribute bands, cafes, choral singing and quizzes. In her spare time she’s a civil servant.

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  • Allen Williams

    When I was at this school (1963-1970) a dedicated group of people spent vast amounts of time and effort on a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, always referred to as “The Battered Bride” in conversation: conductor, director, orchestra, chorus, soloists, stage lighting, and sets were all “in house”. This was no doubt regarded as being of value to the pupils involved, and a few who were dragooned in will have got something from it, but it seemed to me to be primarily a prestigious showpiece to support the image of the school more than anything else. The great majority of us were completely disassociated and didn’t give a twopenny damn about it. Rather elaborate propaganda, little seems to have changed in over half a century.