An all-Tchaikovsky programme is guaranteed to attract a large audience to a Hallé concert in the Bridgewater Hall, even in a Manchester weekend crammed with Chinese New Year events. Forget lion dances and lantern processions; think imperial glories of Russia, the intimate drama of Pushkin in Eugene Onegin and the colourful fabric of Tchaikovsky's greatest ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty.
Mark Elder transformed the busy vignettes of the first act of The Sleeping Beauty into vividly symphonic theatre. He secured perfectly sculpted sound from every section of the orchestra, chillingly ferocious for the wicked fairy Carabosse, tenderly refined for the Lilac Fairy and subtly shifting in mood for the dances that form the highlight of the act. Seldom, surely, has the "Rose Adagio" seemed so freshly minted, with so little interpretive fuss that even the slightest unbending became immensely touching. And, while Aurora's Variation offered no chance to assess the princess's accomplishment as a dancer, there was much to admire in Lyn Fletcher's graceful violin solo. Passionate flair, rather than any flamboyant rhetoric, characterised the busy finale, its elegant freezing of all the characters into a deep sleep conjured up with the true magician's touch.
That the scenes from the opera Eugene Onegin, devised by Mark Elder and the director David Pountney, were less effective than the ballet ones was a question of musical approach rather than technical accomplishment; the Hallé's playing was uniformly first-rate. But the mixture of flexibility and lyricism and the balance between detail and weight that were so successful in the earlier extracts were not so evident here.
The stylishness that touched the fairy-tale ballet music evaporated when Lesley Garrett - overacting or over-directed in the Letter Scene - started rolling around on the platform in front of the violins. Crossing and uncrossing her legs, displaying her cleavage, crouching, kneeling and sprawling on her back, she was scarcely still for a moment. No one can be expected to sing at their best in these conditions, and she certainly didn't. She was far better playing her age as the older, wiser Tatyana, though Pountney could do with consulting the etiquette book of the time. No married lady, especially of her elevated social standing, would clutch, far less kiss, her old flame, burn though she may with the bitter sense of love never wholly experienced.
David Kempster, suffering from a viral infection, used his limited resources expressively enough in his interpretation to suggest that - in better health and voice - he could be an Onegin of some distinction in the opera house. Stranded in the difficult make-believe world of semi-staged opera on a concert platform, Roger Allam relished his spoken role as old Onegin, avoiding hamminess and playing up Pountney's wittily Pushkin-ised narration for all it was worth.