Eugene Onegin, music by Tchaikovsky, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Spring season

Lynne Mortimer

Eugene Onegin, music by Tchaikovsky, Royal Opera House, Spring season

This revival of Steven Pimlott's production of Eugene Onegin is dedicated to his memory.

What many people may not know about the acclaimed director, who died from cancer last year, aged just 53, was that he played oboe in the Ipswich Orchestral Society.

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An artistic associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was appointed an associate director in 1996, he also pursued a successful international career as an opera director and then as a director of big West End musicals, including the revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Jason Donovan, at the London Palladium in 1991, Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and Bollywood-themed musical Bombay Dreams.

The theatre lost a prodigious talent when he died and many local musicians lost a friend.

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Pimlott's production of Tchaikovsky's towering opera Eugene Onegin - his only opera production for The Royal Opera is revived this month with a cast made in heaven.

Appropriately, Marina Poplavskaya in the role of Tatyana, the young woman cruelly spurned by the cold-hearted, cynical Onegin, has the voice of an angel. In the demanding letter aria, her control was breathtaking and, when she finally unleashed that beauteous voice and allowed it to fill the huge space of the opera house, soaring effortlessly to the rafters, it was simply electrifying.

Her letter is returned to her by Onegin who coldly rebukes her. Humiliated, Tatyana has to live with the burning shame of her impetuosity.

The egotistical Onegin declares himself bored by the countryside and those who live there and, to draw attention to his ennui, he flirts outrageously with Olga - Tatyana's sister and the great love of his friend Lensky.

Lensky is bewildered and then incensed by Onegin's behaviour and challenges him to a duel. Although Onegin knows he has overstepped the mark, he accepts the challenge and ends up killing his friend.

Years later, Onegin returns to Moscow having travelled for years. He is astounded to see Tatyana who is now married to a Prince.

Suddenly he realises he has allowed his one chance of happiness to escape from him - he loves Tatyana. He goes to her to declare his love but, although she confesses to loving him still, she says a final farewell. She owes her duty and loyalty to her husband.

The story is told across three acts of variable weather. In the countryside the sisters paddle in the lake (yes, real water); in St Petersburg, the skaters dance on the ice (yes, real ice).

But set aside the spectacle and the fabulous costumes and this is still a wondrous performance. The orchestra, under the baton of Jiri Belohlavek, gives the powerful and melodic score with a strong sense of its Russian-ness.

Gerald Finley's Onegin is a man who thinks nothing of consequences. His reckless rejection of Tatyana is matched by his reckless declaration of love for her. The classic anti-hero Onegin is not a sympathetic character. As someone pointed out, if Onegin had been able to look beyond class and convention it would have turned out like Pride and prejudice. He would have been Darcy and Tatyana would have been Elizabeth Bennet. Finley has a commanding baritone which is especially well showcased in his duets with Lensky - superbly sung by Piotr Beczala - and Tatyana.

The characterful voices of the soloists bring the story to life and the direction makes the most of the wit and capriciousness in the lyrics.

Contralto Ekaterina Semenchuk gives a fiery youthful spontaneity as Tatyana's sister Olga and the parts of their mother Madame Larina and their old nurse Filipyevna are played with pleasing assurance by Diana Montague and Elizabeth Sikora.

Central to the story is the character of Tatyana's husband, Prince Gremin. Brindley Sherratt's dignified expression of love for his wife, makes it clear that she is right to reject the chance of passion with Onegin.

Lynne Mortimer

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