Welsh National Opera called at Bristol Hippodrome last week; the penultimate venue on their UK whistle-stop tour of their current season including the ‘Russian Revolution’ productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. This Eugene Onegin is a revival of James Macdonald’s 2004 production, and with just one performance at Bristol, no wonder there was a full house.
Eugene Onegin, first premièred in Moscow in 1879, is not only regarded as Tchaikovsky’s most beloved opera but one of the greatest in the 19th century repertoire, although it’s somewhat ironic, when you consider the quality, that the composer wrote eleven versus three ballet scores, yet remains far more famed for the latter. Whilst he felt a great deal of pressure doing justice to the beautiful literary tragedy by Alexander Pushkin, the tale was always a natural fit for this medium; heightening the poignancy and drama of missed opportunity and unrequited love and showcasing Russia’s great talent for sweeping romance and heartbreak amidst a snowy, often brutal, landscape.
Here Macdonald has done justice to both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky by keeping the story telling wonderfully simplistic and easy to follow, for this lack of unnecessary ambiguity not only holds your attention for almost three hours, but allows you to enjoy both the performances and score in equal measure. The choreography by Stuart Hopps is a harmonious and elegant addition to the action, while the WNO orchestra, not confined to a pit at the Hippodrome, was an enjoyable part of the whole; soaringly conducted by Latvian Ainārs Rubiķis, who appeared to delve more and more passionately into the work as each act unfolded.
Meanwhile, Swansea-born Natalya Romanjw made a plausible Tatyana, whilst not quite as thoughtful and mesmerising a young heroine as I might have hoped for. Her acting ability does come into its own after her marriage to Prince Gremin (Miklós Sebestyén) in the final act, however, for, haughty and regal, she proves tauntingly pure of heart and morals to her deservedly rejected old flame Eugene Onegin who realises the error of his ways too late. Having once lived as her family neighbour, a disastrous duel, ending in the death of her sister Olga’s (Claudia Huckle) fiancé Lensky (Jason Bridges), has been the reason for Onegin’s long absence abroad, and one which continues to taint their memories of the past.
Onegin, played by acclaimed baritone Nicholas Lester, whom I was greatly impressed by in La bohème at Iford Arts earlier this year, is remarkably reflective and mysterious as the man Tatyana declared her love for as a young woman, and intentionally steers away from being as likeable as the Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal in the 1999 film version directed by his sister Martha Fiennes. Delivering superb vocals and a performance which truly emphasised the character’s social ineptitude and selfishness, Lester was firmly booed come curtain call and rightly seemed to enjoy the strong reaction his performance prompted. A marvellous production that deserves to be revived again and again, Macdonald delivers a deftly crafted jewel of music, love and loss.
The reviewer saw Welsh National Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin at Bristol Hippodrome on 15th November 2017. 3 hours 15 minutes including an interval. The WNO will perform Eugene Onegin at New Theatre Oxford on Tuesday 28th November and Thursday 30th November at 7pm. For more information on this and future Welsh National Opera productions please visit the website.