Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Welsh National Opera
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Tatania (Natalya Romaniw) watched by the now jealous Onegin (Nicholas Lester) Credit: Betina Skovbro, WNO
Onegin (right) kills Lensky (Jason Bridges) Credit: Betina Skovbro, WNO
Harvest dances - the WNO chorus Credit: Betina Skovbro, WNO

Wonderful voices, fine performances, insistent melodies sweepingly played and one of the greatest romantic operas. Yet somehow the magic dust seemed to have fallen from this revival of James Macdonald’s 2004 production.

Appearances are not everything, especially in opera, but I might have enjoyed the show even more on the radio, undistracted by designer Tobias Hoheisel’s ugly, angular set.

“How I love your delightful garden,” sings Jason Bridges’s honey-toned Lensky, in front of a high concrete wall and a rectangle of plastic grass. Inside, the home of the Larins—middle-income landowners—is bare to the point of bleakness.

This is a house waiting to be filled, it seems, just as Natalya Romaniw’s Tatyana is waiting to be filled with love for the hero promised by her sentimental novels. At the same time, the atmosphere seems claustrophobic, a fortress almost, rather than suggesting a country estate only too happy to welcome its infrequent visitors.

Despite its title, Tatyana is really the central character of the opera, present in almost every scene; central to the music is that which accompanies the writing of her naïve, passionate letter to Onegin—composed by Tchaikovsky before starting on the rest of the piece—and which permeates the rest of the score.

Romaniw, Welsh-born of Ukrainian descent, excels vocally and dramatically. She follows every nuance of feeling in this most conversational of operas, while retaining the power to raise her glowing soprano seemingly effortlessly over the orchestra. There is depth too in her characterisation of this young woman who although impressionable is no fool. She does after all eventually marry a princely retired general.

Nicholas Lester, splendidly, is the ice to her fire, singing with elegant clarity, acting with a cool languor. Hoheisel has him dressed formally throughout—appearing to our modern eyes a bit like an undertaker at Tatyana's name-day ball.

It’s a neat touch that when he reappears years later, stricken with remorse, he’s grown his hair in the style of Lensky, the doe-eyed poet he killed in a duel. A slight awkwardness in that final scene, not helped by a malfunctioning rain-machine, should be ironed out as the show progresses.

Those popular vignettes, Lensky's lament on his lost golden days of youth, Miklós Sebestyén as the elderly general who cannot believe his luck in marrying Tatyana, and Joe Roche as M. Triquet were sparkling, and I adored the creamy mezzo of Liuba Sokolova as the nurse.

As ever, the singing of the WNO chorus was a delight. Here they have to dance too—creditably, given the confines imposed by the set.

The production, sung in Russian with English and Welsh surtitles, lasts 3 hours 20 minutes including two intervals. After Cardiff, it tours to Southampton, Llandudno, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Oxford.

Reviewer: Colin Davison