The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera is a splendid beast, from its growling double basses all the way up to its airy flutes, heard to thrilling effect in Eugene Onegin, part of the company’s Russian autumn season. Its oboe struts its cockerel crows, its principal horn sighs and yearns in Tatyana’s Letter Scene. This was a performance, under Latvian conductor Ainars Rubiķis, to revel in the full glory of Tchaikovsky’s score, which bristled and glowed. The spirited dance episodes – rustic harvest celebrations to giddy waltz to a pompous St Petersburg polonaise – were played with tremendous vigour.

Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) © Betina Skovbro
Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana)
© Betina Skovbro

Unfortunately, the cavernous Mayflower pit eats singers for breakfast and only Natalya Romaniw’s full-blooded Tatyana escaped its jaws unmarked. Completely uncovered, it presents great challenges to singers and conductors. On this opening night at the start of the tour proper, voices were often submerged, a problem you’re unlikely to find recreated at other theatres during the run. I was hugely impressed by Romaniw’s role debut at Garsington last year. Here she was once again in imperious voice, unleashing majestic power when required, but delivering Tatyana’s Letter Scene question “Are you my guardian angel or a cruel tempter?” with daring tenderness. This young Welsh soprano is on the cusp of a major operatic career.

Nicholas Lester (Onegin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) © Betina Skovbro
Nicholas Lester (Onegin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana)
© Betina Skovbro

Nicholas Lester made for a towering, haughty Onegin. Despite a touch of grit to his baritone, he sang his long phrases fluently. He’s a contender for Strictly too, spinning Claudia Huckle’s plum-voiced Olga around the dance floor with dashing style. Jason Bridges' tenor is not ideally suited to Russian repertoire, but he sang Lensky’s great Act 2 aria with sensitivity albeit with a slight verismo sob. Miklós Sebestyén made for a sepulchral Gremin, sporting an eyepatch as one of the spoils of war. His great aria was taken at a lethargic speed though, sorely testing Sebestyén’s legato and breath control, though he emerged in one piece. Liuba Sokolova’s Filippyevna was soaked in slavic vowels, her intonation at times characterful, while Camilla Roberts was warm-voiced as Madame Larina. The WNO Chorus was as magnificent as the orchestra – a full-blooded sound for the size of its ensemble and kudos for tackling all the dance numbers with gusto.

Jason Bridges (Lensky) and Nicholas Lester (Onegin) © Betina Skovbro
Jason Bridges (Lensky) and Nicholas Lester (Onegin)
© Betina Skovbro

James MacDonald’s production provides straightforward storytelling, with no need for character doubles or relocation to another century. Firmly in period, Onegin sports a long black coat and top hat straight out of Ilya Repin’s painting The Duel. Tobias Hoheisel's spartan sets are based around a frame behind which wicker fences and fields are spied, or through which walls or ornamental hedges jut. A single pillar makes do for the St Petersburg ball of Act 3. Tchaikovsky labelled his opera “lyric scenes” – seven of them and each here required a lengthy set change, causing the performance to overrun by a good quarter of an hour.

Nicholas Lester (Onegin), Miklós Sebestyén (Gremin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana) © Betina Skovbro
Nicholas Lester (Onegin), Miklós Sebestyén (Gremin) and Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana)
© Betina Skovbro

Revived by Caroline Chaney, there were plenty of moments when the principals seemed left to their own devices, so the sparks between Onegin and Tatyana rarely flew. There were some neat touches though. Tatyana dreamily draws on the window pane of her bedroom. Onegin returns her letter in the final scene – waved in her face as evidence that she must love him (and the fact that he’s kept her letter all those years, surely betrays that Tatyana must have meant something to him despite his protestations at the time?). In the final scene, a pile of books cowers beneath the chaise longue; for all the change in Tatyana’s status, she’s not changed that much. Is she happily married? Does she still find her escape in romantic fiction?

A richly satisfying production and performance, even if it doesn’t quite – as yet – plumb the emotional depths.

***11