The question I’d longed to ask Kasper Holten when his 2013 Royal Opera staging of Eugene Onegin opened was: if you’d had a younger soprano cast as Tatyana, would you have still gone down the “dancing doubles” route? Starting the action with the Act III Tatyana (Princess Gremina) recalling her teenage infatuation with Onegin, their younger selves represented by two dancers, Holten cast the opera as a series of reflections and past regrets. Would a younger soprano blur Holten’s vision? With Nicole Car, who triumphed in this staging in Sydney, taking on the role in this revival, we found out.

Emily Ranford and Nicole Car (Tatyana) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Emily Ranford and Nicole Car (Tatyana)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

As the young Tatyana, dancer Emily Ranford bears more than a passing resemblance to Nicole Car. Evidently, Holten thinks so too, as Ranford was cast as her double in Sydney as well. There could only be a few years between them… and that’s just the point. Tatyana in Act III is only a few years older than the 17-year old who penned her impassioned letter to Onegin. The Letter Scene, in which the older Tatyana dictates to her younger self, is almost unbearably poignant.

I regret that Holten has trimmed down the dancers’ roles. Tatyana’s double no longer ‘crowd-surfs’ during the peasant chorus, nor does she clamber into the bookcase to hide in shame. Tom Shale-Coates was less convincing as Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Onegin double, but then, only Hvorostovsky can carry off his trademark white locks. In the Polonaise, here a “dance of death” in which every girl Onegin partners withers in his arms, Hvorostovsky passed on dancing duties to his double (Simon Keenlyside carried them out himself here in 2013). “Happiness was once so near us,” Onegin and Tatyana sing in their final encounter, the dancers offering them a “Here’s what you could have won” glimpse of how things might have turned out.

Nicole Car (Tatyana) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Nicole Car (Tatyana) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

However, the production is still cluttered by Onegin’s memories, which accumulate on-stage with each passing scene: a pile of books; a sheaf of wheat; a broken chair; a log; and – most damagingly of all – the poet Lensky, who is left to play “dead lions” all through Act III after he is killed in the duel. As metaphors, these symbols of the past are too heavy-handed and distracting.

A strong revival, with better casting in most of the main roles, is topped by the authoritative presence of Semyon Bychkov in the pit. I’ve marvelled this year at the performances this conductor draws from such diverse orchestras as the Vienna Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and it was no different here. He works the ROH Orchestra hard and don’t the results show, with great rhythmic precision, secure brass playing – not often the case with this band – and melancholic warmth in the strings.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin)
© ROH | Bill Cooper
Dmitri Hvorostovsky first appeared as Onegin at Covent Garden back in 1993 (in John Cox’s staging) at about the time he recorded the role (with Bychkov). He returned in Steven Pimlott’s much underrated 2006 production. What is remarkable is that over two decades – and very recent treatment for a brain tumour – on, his baritone is still remarkably refulgent, of leonine strength and purity of line. There is a touch of dryness now and again, and an understandable hint of tiredness towards the end, but Hvorostovsky still retains his crown as the reigning Onegin of our day.

Car sings and acts beautifully, her silvery lyric soprano full of spring-like freshness and clarity. This fits the teenage Tatyana like a glove – such a believable Letter Scene – although her voice is a little light at present for the challenges of the Act III confrontation with Onegin.

Ferruccio Furlanetto gave Prince Gremin heart-on-sleeve emotion in his gem of an aria (with intonation wobbles), though whether Gremin should return to interrupt Onegin and Tatyana at the opera's end is a moot point. Promising Amercian tenor Michael Fabiano made a strong house debut as Lensky. His voice doesn’t have the plangent, nasal quality that Slavic singers can bring to the role, but he phrased “Kuda, kuda” most tenderly. Oksana Volkova’s ripe mezzo gave us a real shot of vodka as Olga, flirting outrageously with Hvorostovsky’s Onegin at the ball to fire Lensky’s jealousy. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt played the perfect cameo as Monsieur Triquet, his birthday couplets for Tatyana actually penned by a coy Lensky.

Act III Polonaise © ROH | Bill Cooper
Act III Polonaise
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are stylish, the ladies of the chorus dressed in vulture-like black, preying on Tatyana, clad in scarlet. Mia Stensgaard’s set serves its single-location purpose, painterly wheatfields and blizzards jostling with clouds of sepia ink as the text of Tatyana’s letter dissolves in projection. Unfortunately, the forward placement of the triple door set means little room for actual dancing – a visual handicap in an opera where the composer sets dancing in every act.

Despite its flaws, Holten’s staging is one to make you think and when it’s as well sung – and conducted – as this, I know I’ll be back for more during the run.