Eugene Onegin – Scottish Opera – Review

Scottish opera reach the end of their rather thin main stage season with a well sung Eugene Onegin which brings with it a lot of surprises.

The action begins, not with the overture but with silence. An older woman – Tatyana herself in old age, we are to discover, stumbles into the wreck of an old country house. A sense of melancholy pervades the scene even before she flings open tall window-shutters and lets in light and mist and music.

The older Tatyana remains on stage throughout the evening and clearly we are seeing things through her memory. This doesn’t particularly get in the way though it is all rather reminiscent of the end of last year’s Scottish Opera season which saw La Boheme through the unlikely eyes of an older reminiscing Mimi.

Director OIiver Mears keeps quite a lot of the action off stage – including everything to do with the chorus. When they are peasants, their singing can be heard through the tall windows and when they are at the ball later on they are kept behind a gauze at the back of the stage which, thanks to Fabiano Piccioli’s lighting design is sometimes the back wall of the room in the country house where we seem to be and sometimes dissolves to show a scene behind it. This sits rather well with an opera which never attempts to tell the whole story. Tchaikovsky picks and chooses individual scenes from Pushkin’s story of Onegin and so a lot of the action is happening off-stage anyway.

In terms of the singing, there are great riches on offer. Onegin himself is played rather cool and aloof by Samuel Dale Johnson. His passions come to life at the end of the piece when he realises that he made a huge mistake in spurning the love of Tatyana. Why anyone should spurn Tatyana when she is played by Natalya Romaniw escapes me. Her singing was one glorious scene of passion after another. She seemed to completely inhabit the besotted Tatyana and it felt as though there was nothing that she wouldn’t do to get her man. Onegin’s friend Lensky was also well served, being sung superbly by Peter Auty.

There was quite a lot to compete with the singing however, and certainly in the first act, the music was quite upstaged by some complex stage business. At one point the peasant chorus could be seen in dull light behind the gauze at the back of the stage. They parted in the manner of Moses parting the Red Sea to reveal the dim figure of Onegin sitting astride a horse. It took a few moments to realise that this was in fact a living and breathing real live horse.

Indeed, although the horse was scarcely visible for more than 25 seconds of the production, it made the strongest impression possible, for it next appeared bounding onto the stage though one of the tall windows, still with Onegin on its back.

Alas, for the singers, the horse also turned out to be a disgruntled opera critic and was soon followed by a Russian looking ostler with an all too necessary bucket and shovel.

Sadly the horse did not receive the dignity of a namecheck in the programme.

However, the musicians carried on regardless through all this and through other more successful pieces of stage business including the members of the chorus striking ball silhouettes, the sudden and rather unexpected appearance of Onegin standing naked in his bath and a group of figures who appeared around a table.

Some of these scenes were seen through the back-wall gauze and were very effective. It worked well though one had to remember that for some of these scenes we seemed to be seeing what was in the head of a character who was comprised of the memories of another character, which takes quite a suspension of disbelief. Sadly too, there’s a price to pay for putting the chorus at the back of the stage and effectively behind a curtain and this left the second act which should be overwhelming feeling a little underpowered.

There are a couple of rather odd historical oddities. Presumably the gloopy bubble-gum dripping off Onegin’s boot wasn’t meant to be there but it wasn’t at all clear how Tatyana managed to write with a fountain pen in the 1830s.

Tatyana’s Pen was in fact sponsored by 19 donors, most of whom were named in the programme so clearly it wasn’t a last minute thought.

Stuart Sutherland’s musical direction was assured and confident. Indeed, it was difficult to believe that this was the same orchestra who sounded so shambolic just weeks ago for Ariadne Auf Naxos.

Tchaikovsky was clearly on the run from his own sexuality when he composed this piece. In Scottish Opera’s hands, the experience of unrequited and then impossible love and rejection never sounded so good.

Do say – “that was a stunning end to Scottish Opera’s season”.

Don’t say – “how do they train a horse to defecate in time to Tchaikovsky?”

Rating: ★★★★☆

This review appeared first in Scene Alba.

Should the churches use more data or less data?

The trouble with data is not what you can do with it – it is what else you can do with it.

There are so many interesting things that one might do with data these days which were simply not possible a few years ago. The question is, how many of them should we attempt to do?

For example, a few years ago we started using dedicated customer (or, I suspect we should say, congregational) relationship management software to manage our congregational roll rather than it being kept on a piece of paper in the office or even keeping it on a spreadsheet. All of a sudden it was possible for those of us who need access to the congregational roll to all be able to access it from wherever we were and know that we were dealing with the most up to date data and we wouldn’t get into a cycle of version control trouble where no-one knew which was the most recent updated list of members of the congregation.

All of a sudden though we could do things with that data that we couldn’t do before and perhaps the most striking thing was that at the push of a button we could have a map which showed where everyone lived. I can print off or save a map of how to get to a house if I am visiting though this is largely superceded by having gps on my phone. What was much more interesting was seeing where the congregation lived as a whole.

As soon as the map came on the screen, I remember saying, “Oh look, our congregation doesn’t cross the Clyde to worship”.

Now there are a few people who do come from the dark far side of the river but by and large, most people worshipping on a Sunday at St Mary’s don’t come from over yonder but live over here.

They shall come from the east and from the west and from the north, but not, in large numbers, from the south.

And that was quite interesting.

But what else could be done with data?

Well, the technology exists to do things that would be acceptable to me and help me in my ministry enormously but which I don’t think would be acceptable to members of the congregation and which might overtread the boundaries of legality.

For example… Most (but not all) people who come to a church would like it to be noticed, perferably by their minister or priest if they should be absent from church for a bit. If you do research on why people leave churches, not being noticed if you are missing is something that does often come up.

But of course, that’s hard to do. Some people are better at it than others, but pretty much no cleric in charge of even a moderate sized congregation can get that right all the time.

Now, new technology exists which would, with the addition of a couple of discrete cameras allow facial recognition technology to track who has been in church from week to week.

How lovely it would be for clergy to have a printout on Sunday afternoon of who was there this morning and a list of who has been missing for the last few weeks. And who could object to that?

Well, the trouble is not what can be done but what else can be done of course and there’s all kinds of people who might not like it to be known where they have been and with whom they have been associating and who would probably not like it to be thought that the clergy of St Mary’s had an accurate database of who has been turning up.

It is complicated too.

Some asylum seekers would be very concerned at being tracked by cameras, whilst others would be delighted that their presence had been recorded, the better to prove that they were integrating into society. And what of that group of the most anxious visitors to St Mary’s – Church of Scotland Ministers Having a Day Off? They, generally speaking are happy to be with us but are sometimes less happy to be seen to be there. (And I did at one point suggest that we build little booths around the walls so that they could worship with us without being seen by Other Members Of Presbytery Also Having A Day Off).

I don’t think that facial recognition technology is going to be acceptable in church any time soon. However, it is worth remembering that we used to have the communion token system whereby communion tokens were distributed to members of the congregation who would bring them when they came to worship. It was partly a way of keeping tabs on who was there and partly a way of keeping people from receiving communion whom others thought should not be receiving.

It was simple technology and acceptable technology.

The current rise in the use of data is far from simple and not always acceptable.

Very recently the General Synod Office in Edinburgh issued some guidance for congregations in Scotland of how we might best keep the new GDPR – General Data Protection Regulations that are coming in next month.

These have been issued far too late and seem to have been devised from the point of view of trying to ensure that clergy and vestries don’t get sued for the way that data is used rather than trying to ensure that people’s data is protected and that the data that the churches keep can be used most effectively in mission.

Oh yes, data use can be mission. I mean it can really be employed for mission, not simply that it is mission in the banal way that everything in any church meeting has to be described as mission in order to get people’s attention). Data can be mission gold.

Just think – all those endless (and ridiculous) times we’ve been told that the best form of mission is to get people to invite their friends to church. Is all that “friendship evangelism” rhetoric not superfluous if we can invite friends of friends of facebook ourselves directly? (Though whether Facebook’s business model survives current scandals is anyone’s guess).

The GDPR materials that we’ve been sent don’t seem to me to be remotely adequate for what we are in the business of and it was very clear that when we discussed them at Vestry recently we would not be able to follow the guidelines from the province anyway. (And I found myself wondering which of our Boards had seen sight of these guidelines – Admin Board or Information and Communication should certainly have had a hand in them and the Mission Board too, I think).

But it is clear that they are difficult for us to implement.

For example, some time ago, the General Synod resolved that clergy should display the contact details for everyone in a congregation for a couple of weeks before the Annual General Meeting.

The new guidelines from the General Synod Office suggest that we now must all go and get everyone in the congregation’s permission to do this.

The truth is, the culture around data has changed completely.

If I made the public publication of everyone’s contact details a condition of being on the roll I’d have no roll left.

If I went round asking the congregation for permission to do so, I’d decimate the formal membership of the congregation instantly. Vestry were very clear that I shouldn’t do anything so stupid. We won’t be publishing everyone’s data and we won’t be asking everyone’s permission to do so. It would harm our mission even to try. And General Synod should revisit this resolution urgently.

Nor will we be asking people’s permission to pass their contact details onto the diocese or the province as we’ve also been recommended to do. We don’t share data in this way. The culture of our times suggests that people would turn away from us if we did do this kind of data sharing. It is against the spirit of the whole GDPR revolution. And so again, we find ourselves having to develop local policies which are legal and fit both with who we are and the culture in which we live.

I fear sudden drops in the recorded membership of the Scottish Episcopal Church if clergy and vestries implement what they have been told to do by the General Synod Office.

There’s also a lack of any kind of conversation about the retention of data.

I’d quite like to see an animation of where the congregation lives on a map of glasgow over a period of 50 years. It would help me know which parts of the city we are reaching and particularly whether we are reaching more affluent or less affluent places. That kind of use of data fits with out ethos. Our church is telling us that we should delete the data that would make it possible.

Data use is tricky. We need to talk about it far more. We need to use it legally with appropriate levels of permission and consent. And we need to use it well.