Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin takes Pushkin’s verse novel and focuses on Tatyana’s infatuation rather than Onegin’s colourful exploits. Oliver Mears, directing Scottish Opera’s stylish new production turns it into a wistful melancholic memory play as the elderly widowed Tatyana revisits her childhood mansion on her family’s former estate in the Russian countryside. This elegant old lady is on stage throughout, her simple smock dress suggesting the 1960s, making her a survivor of the terrors of two Russian Revolutions and two World Wars. She arrives with a suitcase, tugs open the ceiling to floor shutters and remains a mute ghostly presence as she watches her own early life-story unfold. She is unable to change anything, yet this Eugene Onegin invites us to muse on what might have been if events had taken a different turn.

Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin) © James Glossop
Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin)
© James Glossop

The boxy fixed set from designer Annemarie Woods – a large single drab room with a Russian masonry stove and a few pieces of dusty Imperial furniture conveying faded gentility – was spectacularly brought to life by stylish colourful period costumes and exquisite painterly lighting from Fabiana Piccioli. The back wall of gauze allowed the creation of memorable silhouettes and shadows of the chorus who lurked behind, as well as the arresting tableau of Onegin arriving on his horse amidst peasants celebrating harvest.

A very strong cast with plenty of fine singing was headed by Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, giving a simply knockout performance as the bookish girl who pours out her passion to a disinterested stranger. Tucked up to sleep on the battered sofa by Anne-Marie Owens' Filipyevna, Romaniw’s powerful voice, edged with darkness, made the famous Letter Scene a thrilling star turn. Her farewell as she abandoned the finally lovestruck Onegin was particularly moving.

Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) © James Glossop
Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana)
© James Glossop

Scottish Opera’s casting department set the bar high for Onegin who, in addition to his operatic duties, has to arrive on a horse, appear buttock naked in a tin bath (Tatyana’s erotic fantasy) and be able to dance with a professional ballerina. Australian Samuel Dale Johnson was well up for all of these challenges and in gloriously lyrical voice too, arriving across the back of the stage on horseback, and entering in a royal blue frock coat. He convincingly made the journey from youthful arrogance to become a broken man, forced to kill his friend in the duel and abandoned by Tatyana just as he had spurned her love letter, in this production handing it back to the sender. On the first night, Onegin had made a spectacular entrance on horseback through the open window, but George the horse suffered opening night nerves depositing agricultural amounts of dung centre stage to roars of laughter. At this performance, he was sensibly banished to the outdoor tableau appearance only, scuppering this reviewer’s Will he? Won’t he? side bet.

Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) © James Glossop
Samuel Dale Johnson (Onegin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana)
© James Glossop

Peter Auty's jealous Lensky, singing slightly on the edge in the first act, delivered his heartfelt aria thrillingly before being shot in the duel. Elsewhere, the supporting cast was strong, Sioned Gwen Davies a vivacious Olga, and Alison Kettlewell’s rich soprano a treat as Madame Larina. Christopher Gillet, as the fawning Monsieur Triquet, and Matthew Kimble's sonorous rich bass as Prince Gremin, both shone. I was particularly taken with bass James Platt’s wonderfully resonant Zaretsky, Lensky’s second in the duel, a stickler for the rules and a big bearded stage presence in the ethereally-lit orange dawn.

Mears’ dreamy vision meant that the chorus always appeared tucked away behind a scrim at the rear of the set which, although visually effective, became a barrier, muting what could otherwise have been lively set pieces, particularly the dancing which is a key part of this opera. The singing was excellent, however, from the catchy peasant opening onwards, conductor Stuart Stratford waving his arms aloft, palms outstretched so as to be seen. The partially out of sight chorus peering at the action through lorgnettes gave an open stage to ballerina Eve Mutso, choreographed by Ashley Page, effortlessly elegant as she danced the graceful Polonaise first solo, then in partnership with Dale Johnson. Onegin and Olga had the whole floor to waltz, fuelling Lensky’s jealousy, and the Cotillon was an ensemble study in courtly grace.

Eve Mutso © James Glossop
Eve Mutso
© James Glossop

I especially enjoyed the rich orchestral performance as Stratford brought verve to the swirling dances with passionate excitement, the strings underpinned by six double basses giving the sound an exuberant heft, the horns and woodwind luminous in the delicate passages.

Oliver Mears’ memory concept was well thought through. As Onegin returns the letter to Tatyana in Act 1, Old Tatyana produces the faded original, tearing it to shreds at the end of the opera. There are no second chances of rekindling mismatched love.

****1