Ever since turning Pushkin's classic verse novel Eugene Onegin into an opera in the late 1870s, Tchaikovsky has come under fire from the poet's devotees for sentimentalising the elegantly ironic original. Pushkin's eminent translator Vladimir Nabokov even called Tchaikovsky's version silly and slapdash.
Well, that's not how it comes over in a good production, and Welsh National Opera's current staging is certainly that. In fact Nabokov missed the point. Transposing the plot and characters from the printed page to the stage demanded an alternative strategy, and Tchaikovsky's is every bit as viable as Pushkin's.
Tchaikovsky's greatness as an operatic composer lies in his empathy with every one of the characters. Where Pushkin satirises brilliantly, distancing himself from their follies and their tragic outcomes, Tchaikovsky lets you view them from the inside out, so that you know exactly how it feels to make these particular mistakes, and then to have to live with the consequences.
Take the famous Letter Scene, where bookish teenager Tatyana, lost in a miasma of adolescent emotional fantasy, recklessly scribbles a declaration of love to her sophisticated, enigmatic neighbour, Onegin, only to face a rejection all the more crushing for being delivered with a lame attempt at kindness.
Amanda Roocroft's vulnerable, sentient Tatyana engages boldly with this sudden emotional explosion, hurling her edgy lyric soprano fearlessly up to the exposed higher phrases, her body language carefully describing the shy girl's painful, awkward moves towards the world of adult sensibility.
The production is sung in Russian, and though English would have been the more communicative option, the original language does enable WNO to draw on some strong Russian principals.
Vladimir Moroz sings Onegin. He's tall, young, and stiff as a poker - exactly what is required for this aloof man-about-St Petersburg, old beyond his years and with not the smallest ability to connect emotionally with those around him. His is the archetypal Russian baritone, the dark mahogany surface welded firmly on to an iron core. He sings with circumspection, and it's fascinating to watch the alteration in the last act when, after a gap of several years, he meets the now married Tatyana at a society ball, and this time finds himself falling in love with her. In the final scene, his voice swirling upwards and outwards towards the barely self-controlled Tatyana in an all-or-nothing appeal, his desperation is frightening.
The turning point of the action, though, comes when Onegin kills his friend Lensky in a duel provoked by Onegin's petulant flirting with the poet's fiancée Olga through sheer boredom at a dull provincial party. As Onegin slowly lowers his pistol having fired the fatal shot, you sense a change in his whole demeanour, as though the ice within him has finally cracked.
This is only one of many fine details in James Macdonald's searching production, in which gesture and movement are carefully attuned to each character and situation. He also ensures that in the set-piece arias the singers are allowed the stillness needed for their voices to take over as the dramatic focus.
Marius Brenciu's Lensky benefits hugely from this approach. The Romanian tenor had an enormous success in Cardiff in 2001, when he won both prizes in the Singer of the World competition - an unprecedented result. There's a hint of insecurity in the tone, but a good deal of artistry in his singing. In the wintry aria Tchaikovsky gives him before the duel, some of the most lonely and desolate music ever written for the tenor voice, Brenciu shapes the line with finely graded tone. He's also a vivid actor, presenting a self-regarding and more than slightly ridiculous figure, coiffed and dressed like a parody of a romantic poet. All the more moving is the elegy he sings when, shorn of his pretensions, he stares death in the face.
Garnering equal vocal honours is Brindley Sherratt as Tatyana's elderly husband, Prince Gremin. He gets just the one chance to shine, when he tells Onegin how his marriage to Tatyana has brought his life meaning in his later years, and Sherratt's delivery of this famous piece, deploying a subtle play of rhythm, is beyond praise. That he possesses one of the finest bass voices around today does, admittedly, give him something of a head start.
Smaller roles are well taken too, from Ekaterina Semenchuk's flouncy Olga, to Michael Clifton-Thompson's fatuous Monsieur Triquet, Suzanne Murphy's bustling Madame Larina, and Linda Ormiston's touching portrayal of the old nurse. Tobias Hoheisel's designs, which move the period harmlessly forward 50 years, to Tchaikovsky's day, provide a spare period elegance.
This is an important evening too for WNO's young music director, Tugan Sokhiev, in his first new production with the company. He draws a comprehensively rich range of colours from the orchestra and highlights the woodwind detail, though here and there the score needs more impetus. But broadly it augurs well for the sequence of Russian works, some familiar, some rare, which the company has planned around Sokhiev over the next few seasons.
More baring of the dark Russian soul at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday, when Dmitri Hvorostovsky gave an all-Russian programme with Ivari Ilja at the piano. This was part of the Song on the South Bank series, and originally announced were Shostakovich's rare Spanish Songs. It seemed a bit of a swizz that these were dropped and the entire second half devoted to operatic arias, but since these were taken from Russian rarities that Hvorostovsky is unlikely to sing on stage here, perhaps one shouldn't complain.
The Siberian baritone is another Cardiff winner. In 1989 he walked off with the main prize, leaving Bryn Terfel with the lieder award (unofficially regarded as second place). At the time some thought the decision was unfair, and boosted by the televisual appeal of Hvorostovsky's good looks. But if Terfel has subsequently eclipsed Hvorostovsky, in popularity as well as attainment, the Russian still enjoys an extremely healthy career at all the best addresses.
At 41, he's also still a looker, though his flowing locks turned prematurely white some time back. The voice is big and succulent, but he's apt to pour it over the music indiscriminately, like a child lavishing treacle on a pudding.
This was a problem in the first half, where an insufficiently varied Tchaikovsky group was followed by a performance of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death short on detail and characterisation. (I make it three characters in the creepy Lullaby - the Narrator, the Mother and Death. With Hvorostovsky we only really got one.) But he was more focused in the second half, especially in the big monologues from Borodin's Prince Igor, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride and Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa. The vocal engine was still mostly firing on all six cylinders, but at least Hvorostovsky's renewed sense of direction suggested a more careful reading of the road map.
'Eugene Onegin': New Theatre, Cardiff (029 2046 4666), to Tue; then touringReuse content