Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is defined by that which might have been, by the events that should happen but don’t. When Onegin has used the gentlest terms to explain to Tatyana why their marriage would be a disaster, all he then has to do is to walk away – but he doesn’t. When Olga sees that Lensky is furious with her flirting, all she has to do is to throw her arms around him and say “don’t be so daft, darling, of course I love you” – but she doesn’t. And most of all, when Onegin receives Tatyana’s letter, he might understand the importance of the inner beauty and nobility behind her youthful passion – but no, he is too young and arrogant.

Elena Stikhina, Nino Surguladze (Olga), Monica Bacelli (Larina), Larissa Diadkova (Filippyevna)
© Luciano Romano

Barrie Kosky’s well-travelled production has reached Naples and the stunningly beautiful Teatro di San Carlo, accompanied by conductor Fabio Luisi and a star-studded cast. The direction brilliantly signposts these points of inflection in the tragedy, none more so than in the last scene, in which Elena Stikhina and Artur Ruciński gave their best of the evening, a quite brilliant evocation of wistfulness and heartbreak.

The long first scene showed both the staging and the forces of San Carlo at their best. Madame Larina’s garden, where she and Filippyevna are bottling their jam, is depicted as a grassy clearing set in deep woodland. Luisi had the orchestra calibrated to the millimetre, Tchaikovsky's overlapping themes shining in vivid colour through a background strings that were perfectly judged in intensity and in their ebb and flow. The chorus of peasants greeting the Larinas were sensational, producing as much energy from their riot of movement as from singing that somehow managed to be pin sharp while brimming with enthusiasm. Nino Surguladze acted her socks off as Olga, completely convincing as the girl who knows she’s a flibbertigibbet and doesn’t care who else thinks so. Larissa Diadkova clocked in a fine character act as Filippyevna.

Elena Stikhina (Tatyana)
© Luciano Romano

The forest setting is quite magical for this first scene. But I’m unconvinced by Kosky’s choice to use it for the remainder of the opera. First and foremost, the Letter Scene didn’t come off well. Stikhina has the most beautiful voice of anyone I’ve heard sing this scene and the purity and richness of her timbre, combined the complete naturalness of her delivery of the text, were as beguiling as anyone might have hoped for. But lyric perfection doesn’t translate into drama: spotlit on a blank stage which had been completely darkened to remove the background, she seemed to be giving us a masterclass in vocal loveliness rather than incarnating a young woman in despair. I’ve heard her perform this scene in concert with so much more passion than she produced here.

Artur Ruciński (Onegin) and Michael Fabiano (Lensky)
© Luciano Romano

The production was returned to vivid life by Michael Fabiano’s Lensky. Fabiano can be a bit overpowering and, conversely, the role of Lensky can be a bit fey; here, Fabiano reached a perfect happy medium of being muscular and impassioned but not over the top. His aria before the duel (“Where have you gone, O golden days of my spring?”) and the ensuing duet with Ruciński were high points of the evening.

Eugene Onegin
© Luciano Romano

Excellent as the orchestral performance was in the first two acts, there were some questionable choices in Act 3. Kosky doesn’t bother with dancing for the famous Polonaise that opens the act and Luisi chose to take it at an extraordinary clip. The dancers in my mind’s eye were struggling for breath. Conversely, Prince Gremin’s aria was done at a glacial pace. Alexander Tsymbalyuk sang with plenty of emotion and all the delicious legato this great aria deserves, but gave the sense the he was constantly waiting for the orchestra to catch up. The pause before the final phrase was so long that the audience assumed the aria had ended and burst into applause, completely spoiling the final big money note.

Elena Stikhina (Tatyana) and Artur Ruciński (Onegin)
© Luciano Romano

It was also a scene in which Kosky’s staging failed to convince. We saw a miniature version of Gremin’s palace in the middle of the forest, which required cramming in a large chorus into an unnaturally small space in which stage directions departed embarrassingly from the descriptions in the singing. Once Onegin has been left to himself, a horde of flunkeys physically dismantle the palace, revealing the forest behind. The concept of Onegin turning the clock back is clear enough, but surely the point of the opera is that his attempt to do this is an utter failure.

Elena Stikhina (Tatyana) and Artur Ruciński (Onegin)
© Luciano Romano

But what convinced completely was that final scene, with Tatyana only just able to physically tear herself away from the man desperate to clutch onto her. Stikhina and Ruciński’s superb voices melded into marvellous playing from the San Carlo Orchestra to leave our hearts filled with wistful sadness.

****1