OPERA / Driven right off the rails: Stephen Walsh on Howard Davies's Eugene Onegin

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It was always likely that Howard Davies would discover fin de siecle elements in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and produce it like The Cherry Orchard, complete with tree-grown railway lines and a garden full of furniture. But updating is more or less irrelevant to an opera of this kind. One might complain that Pushkin's ironic anti-hero is essentially a pre-emancipation, pre- 1861 figure. But what really counts with Tchaikovsky is not the time but the space: the movement and the choreography - and not just the dancing, but every aspect of the human traffic. Davies's staging for Welsh National Opera, unveiled in Cardiff on Thursday, shows uncertainty at almost every turn in this relation between music and action.

Onegin is more testing in such ways than Idomeneo, which Davies staged elegantly here last year. The function of the chorus, for instance, is more problematical. Its main job is to provide a symbolic social arena within and around which the personal dramas happen. This is something Davies never quite gets right, either in the first scene - with its deft counterpoint of the intimate and the public - or in the last, where the same contrast turns violent. Given a comparatively small stage, why reduce it with scenic clutter (such as the enormous downstage pillows in the Gremin ballroom that inhibit the dancing and lend nothing to the drama)? Bob Crowley's designs are handsome, atmospheric, and superbly lit (by Mark Henderson). But they get in the way.

I don't entirely blame Davies for the weak musical effect of the first night, though sometimes his fussy style wasn't much help. Tatyana's letter scene is hard enough without making her circle the stage pulling an enormous curtain while remembering to jump the ubiquitous railway lines as she goes. As for subjecting her to Gremin's song (which should obviously be delivered to Onegin alone), this is as gauche as it would have been of the Prince publicly to sing his wife's praises in real life.

Janice Watson doesn't, at present, survive this treatment, and her Tatyana, if sweetly sung, lacks presence. So far as that goes, she is pretty much upstaged by Yvonne Burnett's lively, personable Olga. Jason Howard's Onegin is disappointing: a Chekhovian pop- idol whose musical line often seems to vanish into his beard. Yet the duel scene is very touching, thanks not least to the sensitive Lensky of Neil Rosenhein - a tall American tenor who gets round some awkward corners in his voice by sheer musicality.

But what has happened to Carlo Rizzi? After an exquisitely played prelude, he seemed to lose all touch with the shapely Italianate, as well as the Russo-balletic, Tchaikovsky. The performance was rushed, ungraded and mostly too loud. No wonder few of the promising minor castings came up to expectations. Peter Rose's sturdy, beery Prince Gremin was an exception. Perhaps there's a moral in that; but it isn't, I imagine, one that Davies would care to draw.

Further Cardiff performances 2, 5 June (0222-394844); then on tour to Bristol, Southampton, Oxford and Birmingham