Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Eugene Onegin @ Royal Opera, London

10, 14, 18, 20, 26 March, 1, 4, 7 April 2008

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House)

If one had watched only the final scene of this production of Eugene Onegin, the impression would have been of a thrilling evening of theatre. Actually, it was a problematic one, redeemed only by various strong vocal performances and the presence of an intelligent conductor in the pit. The late Steven Pimlott’s production fails to illuminate Tchaikovsky’s masterful score.

Eugene Onegin is an intimate work, a realistic one, its genius in the subtlety of the orchestral writing and the believability of the human drama. Taste in German and Italian opera of the period may have been for the grand, but Tchaikovsky wanted something smaller, more personable. Here, director Pimlott makes full use of the Covent Garden stage, huge, erotic images emblazoned on the drop curtain, a lake of water centre stage and the whole enclosed by the monumental contours of an implied picture frame. Unsurprisingly, the character interaction is completely dwarfed.

The set is so large that, in the opera’s most intimate scenes, ‘mini sets’ are literally dragged onstage, yet any semblance of intimacy is lost when characters step from them, destroying the illusion conjured. Where this production ultimately fails is in its theatricality, damaging in a work so necessarily realistic. One problem is the (admittedly effective) lighting, which changes hue not only to evoke the time of day, but also to reflect the characters’ inner feelings, the appearance more of Expressionism than of realism.

It does not help that scene changes often involve enough banging and hammering to interfere with the action, still occuring before the drop curtain; equally problematic is the direction of the chorus, rudimentary poses and gestures dramatically unconvincing. There is still much to enjoy, albeit fleetingly: in the work’s final scene, Onegin and Tatyana sit at opposite sides of the stage as they contemplate their lost love, a moment arresting in its simpleness of intention and effectiveness of delivery. Sadly, as a whole, Pimlott’s production is too overbearing for the opera’s intimate human drama to appear either realistic or convincing.

On Monday evening, Jiří Bělohlávek’s conducting improved greatly as it progressed, this interpretation subtle and reflective, stunningly powerful as the score breaks into forte grandeur; early stretches of uninspired pacing were easily forgettable. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House responded with nuanced, responsive phrasing and articulation. The chorus too had a weak start, straying often from Belohlávek’s clear rhythms in the first act, but their singing later on could be exquisitely poised and gut-wrenchingly forceful. Forceful too was the Tatyana, Hibla Gerzmava, her vocal performance in the opera’s final scene mesmerising, although her characterisation seemed slightly tepid, with some heavy breathing providing aural distraction.

I found Piotr Beczala’s Lensky to be dramatically underwhelming, and the artist’s voice, for all the style of delivery, lacks both finesse and ease. It was Gerald Finley’s Onegin that ultimately raised the temperature of this revival, the artist’s stage presence magnificent and his voice thrilling: open-throated and expressive. This Onegin was an especially, brilliantly black, ambiguous hole at the centre of the drama. Forget any qualms: this is essential viewing for Finley alone.

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Eugene Onegin @ Royal Opera, London