It’s hard to imagine a better Onegin than Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The world-weary cynicism of Pushkin’s hero comes naturally to him, and with ravishing singing contrasting with an icy demeanour, it’s quite easy to see how the innocent young girl Tatiana becomes infatuated with him. In this 2007 production, his young victim is sung by Renée Fleming, and it turns out to be a dream pairing.

Tatiana matches Onegin as one of the greatest Russian characters in literature and opera and the role demands greater emotional depth than the one-sided coldness of Onegin. It was a brave decision to cast Fleming, who had not previously sung any Russian opera, instead of the Russian singers who live and breathe Tatiana in the same way that Hvorostovsky inhabits Onegin, but the risk pays off. Fleming’s bright singing gives a freshness to the role that is perfect for Tatiana’s youthful passion and her Russian is convincingly well enunciated and delivered with clarity. In her letter-writing scene she pours out girlish impulsiveness but by the end she has made the transition into a self-assured young woman. In this production it is Tatiana who is fully in control in the final confrontation with Onegin.

Hvorostovsky and Fleming both act as brilliantly as they sing, and it is well worth watching the filmed version of this production for the fleeting facial expressions, particularly from Onegin, that might be missed on stage: the odd cynical smile, or his terrifying look of rage as he realises he might not get Tatiana after all. His Onegin is devoid of any love; there is not a shred of kindness in his rejection of Tatiana and, when he eventually pursues her, it is with a terrifying violence.

Adding to the star cast is Valery Gergiev, whose conducting brings out all the nuances of this particular production. Gergiev takes Tatiana’s big scenes at brisk tempi, with feverish playing that underpins her agitation, and switches to a quiet chilliness for Onegin, particularly in the duel scene.

Robert Carsen’s minimalist staging and beautiful lighting places all the emphasis on the singers themselves. The overture accompanies Onegin, sitting alone on stage, looking over old letters. Dried leaves fall out of the letters before a storm of leaves engulfs Onegin, the leaves then becoming a beautiful carpet for the harvest celebrations which open the opera and remind us of the story’s autumnal theme of lost opportunities. The moment of the duel between Onegin and Lenski is played out in a sharp silhouette, emphasising the senselessness of Onegin’s actions. A small disappointment is that the dance scenes are minimised, particularly at the beginning of Act III, when instead of the polonaise, we witness Onegin dressing for the ball.

There is a fine supporting cast, made up mainly of Russian singers, the exception being Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as Lenski. Vargas’s singing is moving and lyrical, although his Russian is not always as clear as Fleming’s. Larisa Shevchenko blends tenderness and comedy as the elderly nurse Filippyevna, and bass Sergei Aleksashkin sings Prince Gremin’s lovely aria with affection, a rich tone and thrilling low notes. The only disappointment is Elena Zaremba who is a rather heavy-footed Olga.

Onegin

’s literary weight means that it often falls victim to over-clever productions, particularly outside Russia. This is not the case here. With unfussy staging, lovely costumes and a stellar cast, this Onegin is not to be missed.