David Pountney's production of The Enchantress gave us a welcome opportunity to hear one of Tchaikovsky's lesser known (and less successful) operas at the Teatro di San Carlo. Indeed, this was the first time it has been performed in Italy since its première. Of the eleven operas Tchaikovsky wrote, only two – Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades – have earned a place in the popular repertory. The Enchantress (1887) was composed between the two, in the same period as the Manfred Symphony, the Fifth Symphony and his ballet The Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky was at the peak of his creative powers, yet The Enchantress has rarely found favour outside Russia.

While The Maid of Orleans and Mazeppa, after initial mixed receptions, have long since been reassessed, The Enchantress’ 'rehabilitation’ was deferred until this 2003 David Pountney staging, co-produced by St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre and the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon.

The action takes place in a tavern near Nizhny Novgorod, full of drunken customers, all courting Nastasya, the charming innkeeper, nicknamed "Kuma". She has an enemy in Mamirov, an old deacon who, when rejected by Nastasya, spreads gossip around that she is a sorceress and that every man she meets falls in love with her. A free spirit, Nastasya is a sort of Russian Carmen, who is innocent of any fault apart from being beautiful.

Prince Nikita Kurlyatev also falls under Nastasya's spell, and tries to reach his goal by whatever means. Mamirov reports this to Nikita's wife, Princess Yevpraksiya, and her son Yury swears to avenge his mother. But Yury is charmed himself by Kuma, who also loves him. They plan to flee during the night, but the jealous princess poisons Nastasya and has her body thrown into the river. Nikita arrives and, refusing to believe Nastasya is dead, kills his son, going eventually insane.

Though in some passages it is brilliantly scored and vocally striking, the drama does not move deeply and, if you see it with Onegin in mind, you may be disappointed. The Enchantress lacks a lyrical centre to give unity and balance to the different sections, as it moves by juxtaposed scenes, some of them as wordy as to resemble a stage drama with some incidental music. But it’s Tchaikovsky nevertheless and it contains lots of fine musical passages, which cannot be easily forgotten.

The libretto was drawn by Ippolit Shpazhinsky from his own play, and he seemed not to distinguish much between opera and spoken drama, with the result that his libretto is verbose and packed with minor characters, which makes much of the plot unclear.

David Pountney has a firm idea of the opera’s structure, though sometimes his production struggled to maintain the audience’s interest throughout the long scenes featuring personal encounters (for instance the duet between the young prince and his mother, or his love duet with Kuma). Robert Innes-Hopkins' designs move the action from Medieval Russia to a 19th-century household.

The singers showed commitment and passionate energy, and an authentic Russian timbre overall: they and the choir could move freely around the stage, as they were given purpose and presence by the director. The character of Nastasya presents a formidable challenge to the soprano; Maria Bajankina portrayed her with cool eroticism and boldness, making her entrance lowered on a divan. She showed command of the title role's vocal requirements with a tone that was firm and often glowing.

Baritone Yaroslav Petryanik sang Prince Nikita, his firm baritone expressing both passion and frustration.  Tenor Nikolai Yemtsov was the young Yury, his large and ringing voice giving a penetrating performance. Lyubov Sokolova's self-confident Princess was equally fine, Alexei Tanovitski a resonant, devious Mamirov.

Conductor Zaurbek Gugkaev did a good job, clearly steering the San Carlo Orchestra through the flow of the drama, with commendable playing to overcome the challenge of Tchaikovsky's unfamiliar score.