Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera House, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Steven Pimlott's interesting but wilful staging of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is torn from the pages of those hopelessly romantic stories through which its heroine Tatiana dreams her way through life. Books are her refuge, her salvation. And, once it's clear that fantasy can never be her reality, her final exit is made literally through them - a concealed door in her library.

And so the Russia of her youth is the Russia of folklore. Antony McDonald's designs are a parody of picture-book wholesomeness. Well-scrubbed peasants are set against an idyll of green fields, tranquil lake and rosy sunsets. But after Onegin's rejection, rain begins to fall and Tatiana's nameday ball becomes a grotesque pantomime. Onegin - her Prince Charming - is fleetingly her escort, but it's only wishful thinking; Onegin is flirting with his friend Lensky's betrothed, Olga, and the death of innocence is imminent. The winter of discontent will be long - but picturesque.

It could all have worked so well. But movement and choreography (Linda Dobell) is hopelessly inept and McDonald's designs are impractical. I like the way Pimlott isolates his protagonists at key moments, and his boldness in playing against Tchaikovsky's festive music to depict the St Petersburg ball as more of a wake than a celebration - the idle rich as the living dead. But in the end the stagecraft is simply not up to the job.

The singing, for the most part, is - though I cannot remember when this opera was last quite so dominated by a Lensky and Olga. Nino Surguladze's engaging Olga is established early on as a tomboy with irresistible feminine charms. The contralto colour of the voice is beguiling, but as ever it's the belief that sweeps you along on her every word and gesture. The same is true of Rolando Villazon's Lensky; the ardour, the intensity, of the delivery is thrilling. His calling for Olga in the final minutes of his life was the highlight of the evening.

Amanda Roocroft's Tatiana had some memorable moments, and she is an affecting artist, but frumpish wigs and frocks did nothing to assist the illusion of youth. Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Onegin struck a fine balance between aloofness and dash, his singing full of his trademark phrasings, long-breathed and musical.

Philippe Jordan presided over some of the worst choral ensemble I've heard in this house for some time - again, a frustrating mismatch of highs and lows.

To 8 April (020-7304 4000)

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