Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
(2008)

Production photo

For an opera company to lose its leading man is unfortunate. For it to lose both the leading man and the chief understudy could seem carelessness, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. That, however, was the fate which befell the WNO and its revival of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Fortunately the ill luck ended there, thanks to the availability of the second understudy Christopher Dickson.

The production, which is a revival of a sell-out one first seen four years ago, ultimately triumphs over adversity and, along with revivals of The Magic Flute and Falstaff, the latter starring Bryn Terfel, finds the company in rude health.

As with The Magic Flute, there is much to enchant the eye, as well as the ear, designer Tobias Hoheisel making full use of the opportunities afforded by the grandeur of the setting, Imperial Russia in all its pomp and splendour. Initially the set, a large expanse of white framing what looks like a suburban English garden seems ill-thought out. In due course, however, the art of the design becomes clear, affording an austere beauty to the duel in the snow between Onegin and Lensky and a suitable chilliness to the scenes in St Petersburg.

The cramped design of Act I also bodies forth the limited lives led by the mass of those living in Russia, even those like Tatyana, born into a family removed from the peasants who at that time made up 87 per cent of the population of Russia. By Act III, Tatyana inhabits a large drawing room with windows on to the world, but still she is cribbed and confined, trapped in a loveless marriage.

The production, though, takes a little while to warm up. As well as feeling hemmed in, the dance by the returning farm labourers feels a little half-hearted and Onegin too, on first appearance, looks more like an undertaker than the subsequent ardent wooer. Events, however, again confound initial impressions as the sleek Onegin, immaculate in black from top to toe, gives way to one transformed outwardly as well as inwardly, hispid and unkempt.

Dickson rings the changes well, admirably so in the circumstances - he was due to give a recital elsewhere. But despite lending his name to the opera - actually described as seven lyric scenes by Tchaikovsky - Onegin is absent for much of the time, throwing other members of the cast into the foreground.

Nuccia Focile, taking up the role previously filled by Amanda Roocroft, shines as Tatyana, convincing both as an ardent youngster and as the confident and self-possessed and dignified presence of Act III. There is fine support too from Alexandra Sherman, singing sweetly as Olga, her sister, and from Paul Charles Clarke, appealing as the unfortunate Lensky. The backing of the Orchestra of the WNO under the baton of Alexander Polianichko is assured.

Reviewer: Pete Wood