Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 3rd November, 2017
Welsh National Opera’s autumn season is all about the Russians. Tonight, it’s Tchaikovsky’s melodrama about a moody outcast and his effect on others. Young Tatyana takes a fancy to the aloof stranger who comes visiting with a friend. She rapidly falls head over heels. He turns her down, gets into a row with his best mate and shoots him dead in a duel. Years later, after travelling, Onegin returns to declare his love to Tatyana but she has married a prince and so Onegin is left alone and even more miserable than he at first pretended.
So much for the plot. What matters here is the execution. Natalya Romaniw shines as the love-struck Tatyana, especially in her extended aria in which she writes a letter to Onegin, an outpouring of emotion. Onegin himself (Nicholas Lester) stalks around in black like Hamlet disguised as an undertaker, all mean and moody – he comes alive in the scene with his BFF, Lensky (Jason Bridges) during which they fail to find a way to cancel their duel. The duel scene is the best of the opera, combining high emotion with action. Bridges’s searing tenor brings the house down, and there is an impressive cameo from Miklos Sebestyen as the Prince, who comes across as a Zarastro figure – not the only Mozartian touch about Tchaikovsky’s work; everything from the orchestration to the structure (duets developing into quartets, for example) pays homage to Tchaikovsky’s favourite and mine. There is pleasing support from Liuba Sokolova as Tatyana’s Nanny and Camilla Roberts as her mother. Joe Roche makes his mark in an amusing appearance as Monsieur Triquet.
As ever, the WNO chorus is in superb voice – but their dancing, especially at the formal ball, needs polish. They don’t look like they’re enjoying it which detracts from Onegin’s aloofness and boredom. The mighty WNO orchestra plays flawlessly under the baton of Latvian conductor Ainars Rubikis, making his debut with WNO.
Tobias Hoheisel’s set design features windows, combining interiors and exteriors, which probably says something about people’s outer facades and their inner feelings, or insiders and outsiders – at times I find it too gloomy to fit with the lighter parts of the libretto. There is humour here that is fighting against the murkiness of the setting and Andreas Gruters’s atmospheric lighting.
The nature of the material is such that all the action comes in the second act and Onegin’s devastation at the end – I think this production needs to make more of the frivolity of the other aspects for greater contrast with the darker elements and to emphasise Onegin’s otherness. Tchaikovsky does well to emulate Mozart’s sound palette but he cannot match the Austrian’s sense of the dramatic or indeed the comic.