NOTE: This is a review of the Sydney premiere of the production. In Melbourne Guillame Tourniaire conducts Orchestra Victoria. Most of the cast are the same, except that Paulo Szot is in the title role and Daniel Sumegi plays Gremin. Soloists marked with an *asterisk do not appear in the Melbourne production.
Pushkin is the Russians' Shakespeare, and his verse novel Yevgeniy Onegin (1831) has a position in popular and literary mindspace comparable to Romeo and Juliet, except that whereas Romeo is widely considered a hero who at worst bungles the true love of his bride (and pays with both their lives), Onegin is a bounder who rejects a clumsy written declaration of love by Tatyana, and both live to regret it. Whereas the recidivist poet Shakespeare sneaks in only a single sonnet ("If I profane") into a sprawling haystack of incident, Pushkin piles up poems by the hundred but with little action. Tchaikovsky's 1879 opera pares this little back further, eliminating the suave narrative voice of his source. The result is dramatically sparse, but his music is fortunately powerful enough to sweep aside most objections from the intellect, especially when performed as beautifully as it is here by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, the OA Chorus and several knockout soloists.
The main problem for most of us who don't speak Russian is that Pushkin's poetry gets lost in the translation. So we have to rely on the composer conveying and occasionally counterpointing the emotions we read on the surtitles and on the faces of the actors. Lucky for us, merely the main couple here – the magnificent Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis* and OA's Nicole Car, looking so young and singing so very well – would justify a full house anywhere in the world. Now add a feisty Sian Pendry as Tatyana's headstrong sister Olga, and the smashing James Eggleston as her lover Lensky, and you're well above twice the price of admission. But there's more: the bonus of Kanen Breen in a comic cameo prior to the duel between Onegin and Lensky, plus the magisterial Russian bass Konstantin Gorny* as Gremin, the prince Tatyana marries instead of Onegin. By then the Russian you don't know won't bother you: just go with the emotional flow, guided energetically and accurately by conductor Guillame Tourniaire.
Danish director Kasper Holten made a controversial decision to add a pair of mute younger versions of the two main characters, haunting their older selves with regret. Not everyone will appreciate this, nor the large withered branches and the dead body of Lensky left around for stage years. We liked both his concept and the designers' glowing and evocative execution, but if you prefer to close your eyes and just listen to this simple tale of failed love, the romantic misgivings you feel may not be as remote from Pushkin's intentions as the critics of Tchaikovsky and Holten might lead you to believe.