Review: Eugene Onegin (Theatre Royal Glasgow and tour)

The Royal Opera’s artistic director stages Tchaikovsky’s romantic masterpiece for Scottish Opera

Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin (Scottish Opera)
Samuel Dale Johnson as Onegin and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin (Scottish Opera)
© James Glossop

The new Eugene Onegin from Scottish Opera scored an unforgettable first night, mostly for the right reasons. Natalya Romaniw sang the socks off her signature role, that of the idealistic young Tatyana who falls for the handsome but uptight neighbour, and more than confirmed her supremacy among opera's younger generation. This is the Welsh diva's third incarnation as Pushkin's youthful dreamer and, as at Garsington and for Welsh National Opera, it was a mesmerising performance powered by an elemental vocal presence.

As the object of her desires, fast-rising Samuel Dale Johnson blossomed to leading man status. Indeed I cannot recall a more beautifully sung Onegin – albeit sounding less like a Russian than Escamillo with attitude – and the Australian baritone's commanding physical presence made it easy to understand why Tatyana was so besotted. Yet Johnson's descent from patronising aristo to broken self-loather was startling.

Tenor Peter Auty was a suitably anguished Lensky, if not quite as pitiable as he needs to be nor as plangent in his final aria, while Sioned Gwen Davies (a flighty Olga) and Anne-Marie Owens (a Chekhovian figure as the nurse Filipyevna) created truthful characterisations. Christopher Gillett was in fine voice as a refreshingly uncaricatured Monsieur Triquet, Graeme Broadbent slightly uningratiating as Prince Gremin, Tatyana's eventual husband. Even director Oliver Mears' hackneyed device of an older Tatyana watching her memories unfold (see any number of opera productions passim, most recently Olivia Fuchs's Der Rosenkavalier for WNO) turned out to be relatively unobtrusive.

Stuart Stratford, Scottish Opera's resourceful music director, conducted his orchestra with a wonderful Tchaikovskian flair; his account of the dance interludes in particular overflowed with élan. Eugene Onegin is an opera punctuated by two set-piece ball scenes, but here the ad hoc 'Chorus of Eugene Onegin' (the company no longer retains its own choristers) was, bizarrely, tucked away behind a scrim. Whether this was part of the director's memory-play concept – they emerged as though from a magic lantern show – or whether there'd been insufficient rehearsal time for a more intricate staging, the lack of spectacle was a let-down. Still, ballerina Eve Mutso's solo interpretations of Ashley Page's choreography papered over the cracks and Fabiana Piccioli lit Annemarie Woods's time-shifting designs with imaginative subtlety.

Satisfying fare for the most part, then. But there's an elephant in the room, and it's a horse. Astride a real-life stallion with, I can vouch, an efficient alimentary tract, sat the handsome Onegin in a virtuoso first entrance as an idealised vision in the mind of the dreamy Tatyana. My, he cut a dash as he rode his steed through the Larin family ballroom.

Now, horses are notoriously nervous creatures, and when the inevitable occurred it was at the very spot where much subsequent action was due to take place. A wrangler materialised and scooped up some of the droppings; but the blocking thereafter brought every onstage character close to ground zero and, oh dear, look out… A second hasty swab left the floor still flecked just where Romaniw, by now barefoot, was due to deliver her letter song. It was mightily distracting.

Will this equine excitement recur in future performances? Who knows, but it's worth buying a ticket on the offchance. One thing is certain: as directorial wheezes go this was not Mears' happiest inspiration. Indeed, it was conceptually chaotic in the first place to combine an old Tatyana's memories with the expressionistic projection of her younger self's emotions. The two conceits collided unhelpfully.

Before long the teenage version was back in her fantasies, this time visualising Onegin naked in the bath. Hot stuff it was, too: erotic, suggestive – and thankfully devoid of horseplay.