Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin isn’t normally a star vehicle for the tenor, who isn’t even the title role. But the tragedy of Olga and Lensky – the sweetest of loves cruelly ended by Lensky’s death in a duel born of nothing more than youthful petulance – has every right to be even more poignant than the bitterly wasted love lives of Onegin and Tatyana. Last night at Grange Park, it was nothing less than gut wrenching.

Brett Polegato (Onegin) and Susan Gritton (Tatyana) © Robert Workman
Brett Polegato (Onegin) and Susan Gritton (Tatyana)
© Robert Workman

Jung Soo Yun was magnificent as Lensky. He delivered power and legato as required, but what impressed most was his ability to wrap his voice around the Russian phrasing and thus to give life to every sentence. I don’t speak a word of Russian, but the cadences of his speech communicated with immense power, helped by excellent acting. In the ball scene, I was totally convinced by the process in which Lensky gradually winds himself into impotent, alcohol-fuelled rage as the flibbertigibbet Olga (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, pretty, and sweet toned) remains oblivious until everything is much too late. The scene the next morning, as Lensky nurses his hangover, fears and regrets before going to his death, was heartbreaking.

Stephen Medcalf’s meticulous staging is a subtle blend of photorealism and stylised movement which excels in so many individual details that I would bore you with the smallest attempt at an exhaustive list. Francis O’Connor’s set makes clever use of a balcony that traverses the full width of the stage, with screens behind: it serves as a doll's house view of different parts of the Larina home in Acts I and II, while the simple addition of a spiral staircase and some changes of screen positions and lighting turn it into the ballroom of Act III. It’s stylish, effective in the drama and easy on the eye: the magnificent costumes of the St Petersburg ball drew a collective gasp from the audience as the curtain rose. Acting, props and movement around stage were pin sharp in depicting the subtle gradations of Russian society: every detail of the jam-making scene in the Larina household is carefully crafted, the officers at the ball behave exactly the way they would in Tolstoy, freeze frame is cleverly used to separate Tatyana and Onegin from the mass of the crowd. Choreographed by Lynne Hockney, every dance sequence thrilled, each precisely accurate to its social milieu, from the wheatsheafs of the peasants in Act I to the considerably more genteel dances of Tatyana’s name day to the grandness of the ball.

Jung Soo Yun (Lensky) © Robert Workman
Jung Soo Yun (Lensky)
© Robert Workman

All other vocal performances were all of high quality; none of them quite reached the heights of Yun, especially in the ability to sound natural when phrasing Russian. Some voice types weren’t quite matched to their roles: Brett Polegato has a bright, smooth baritone that doesn’t really express Onegin’s dark side; Alan Ewing has raw energy and power to burn but lacked the legato to make the most of Prince Gremin’s marvellous aria "All men surrender to Love's power". Susan Gritton did a fine job of acting Tatyana’s transition from dreamy young girl to serene great lady, but there wasn't enough change in her vocal timbre to truly match the acting.

But there were plenty of wonderful vocal moments, starting with the female quartet in Act I as Madame Larina and Filippyevna give the girls a reality check on how love and marriage actually work and continuing through the big chorus numbers and Onegin and Lensky’s duet before the duel. Gianluca Marcianò and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave a spirited rendering of the score, making the most of its achingly melancholic melodies, but often straying on the side of too fast and/or too loud for their singers.

Act I Peasants Dance © Robert Workman
Act I Peasants Dance
© Robert Workman

But leave the details aside: the big picture is that this production really made me believe. The verismo movement is said to have started with Cavalleria rusticana in 1890: on the basis of this production, I’d say that Tchaikovsky scooped the Italians by a decade. So many of the characters’ emotions came across painfully near the bone, from nostalgia to embarrassment to fury to despair at time lost. And that direct transfer of emotions, coupled with the fact that half a dozen of the melodies are still ringing in my head, is what makes Eugene Onegin such a masterpiece.