As anyone who attended the matinee opening performance of the Royal Opera's new production of Fidelio last May will know, opera in the afternoon can be a sleepy affair. The singers aren't quite at their vocal peak or properly relaxed; the orchestra doesn't play with such incision; even the audience seems to behave with less of a sense of occasion than at an evening performance.
Such was the case, too, at the opening performance of this first revival of Covent Garden's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, originally seen in 2006. Tchaikovsky was better served here than Beethoven was in that Fidelio performance, and there was much to enjoy, but even so it was hard not to feel that the singers and orchestra took a long time to warm up and will probably shine a lot more on Monday night's official press show.
However, the main problem is that the late Steven Pimlott's production, here revived by Elaine Kidd in his memory, is just as cumbersome and vapid as when it was first shown. Not everyone will agree, but for me Antony McDonald's sets are for the most part both ugly and hopelessly impractical for an opera staging. Far from being a 'period production' as Elaine Padmore claims in the programme, it actually eschews all hopes of realism and grittiness and instead serves up a tacky white proscenium, a cardboard hill with green grass that is covered by white sheets later on to represent snow, and a river in which Tatyana and Olga splash themselves and which later freezes over for some random ice skating during the Polonaise, which is inexplicably staged outdoors. This latter scene, in fact, is a good example of how misguided the production is: it should be staged in a vibrant ballroom, where Onegin comes upon the now-married Tatyana unexpectedly in the crowd and is overwhelmed with frustrated passion – a moment of both physical and psychological claustrophobia – but Pimlott has it out in the open air.
The Russian peasants are given incredibly repetitive and perfunctory choreography and are costumed in spotlessly white national dress, apparently bought by the village in a job lot. The dance at Tatyana's nameday party is cramped at the front of the stage and is unbelievably static so that there is no sense of the private conversations and emotions taking place in the midst of a crowd scene of general happiness. Nor is this scene enhanced by the arrival of revellers dressed in animal outfits; this also undercuts the appearance of an actor in a far-too-cuddly bear costume in the skating scene (possibly the most risible thing I've seen since the horrors of Parsifal in December). Tatyana's Letter Scene is still a mess, taking place in a small bedroom set which is dragged off through the river by Russian peasants in Wellington boots. Tatyana spends very little time writing the letter (an act which takes place on the bed - not the most practical place to choose, one would think), instead stepping out of the room and sitting on a step for the majority of her glorious soliloquy. The duel scene is more atmospheric, taking place on a grey, bleak and snowy landscape, but on the whole it's difficult to rate this production as a satisfactory rendering of the plot, let alone an insightful interpretation of the text.
Though I imagine he'll sing with even more vocal resplendence in the evening performances during the run, Gerald Finley easily stole the show in the title role and, regardless of the question asked by Áine Sheil in her programme note ('Why…is it [not] called Tatiana Larina?'), made sure there was no doubt as to why the opera was christened Eugene Onegin. Finley was one of only two singers in this performance to go on any kind of journey – the other being Piotr Beczala's committed, heartfelt Lensky – and in Act III he raised the temperature by expressing Onegin's neuroticism and despair with both vocal and physical verve. Perhaps inevitably, his Russian is not as idiomatic as a native speaker's would be (and I'm not sure about his dancing skills, though perhaps the direction was more to blame!), but Finley's transformation from haughty, Mr Darcy-like behaviour at the beginning to a desperate lover pleading on his knees in the closing scene was by far the best reason to see this performance.
I had hoped for great things, too, from Marina Poplavskaya's Tatyana. The former Jette Parker Young Artist seemed the perfect choice for the role: young, beautiful, intelligent, a native Russian, qualities which did indeed enhance her performance. But both her voice and her interpretation surprised me, and not entirely in a positive way. Evidently Poplavskaya sees this character as a great reader, almost a trainee intellectual, a viewpoint emphasised by the production when her friends all bring her presents of books on her nameday. Yet for my taste the singer played the role in far too aloof and reserved a manner. It's fair enough to have her head buried in a book in the first-act quartet, but there was no feeling that her heart had been awoken by this alluring stranger, and I got very little from her facial expression during the Letter monologue. Vocally, too, there was disappointment. Sometimes Poplavskaya produced some beautifully calculated half-tones, but too many of the top notes were not supported strongly enough and even her very final note was unpleasantly harsh; compared to Renée Fleming's lustrous performance of the role on the recent DVD from the Met, Poplavskaya was very tame and uneven.
Ekaterina Semenchuk looked and played the part of Olga perfectly, though her singing was underprojected; neither Robin Leggate (Monsieur Triquet) nor Elizabeth Sikora (Filipyevna) produced the goods vocally, despite strong characterisations, but Brindley Sherett was excellent as Prince Gremin and Young Artist Vuyani Mlinde made a solid impact as Zaretsky. In truth, though, I thought that Diana Montague showed everyone else up: not only did she play the part of Madame Larina with an eye for detail, but she also sang with a firmness of tone and feeling for the style of the music in a way that was unmatched by everyone apart from Finley and Beczala. Jiri Belohlavek's conducting was characterised by evenness and accuracy – a refreshing change from the recent revivals of La traviata and Die Zauberflöte – but marred by slow tempos, a lack of brilliance at the climaxes and a tendency to indulge the singers to the detriment of the momentum of the music; this was particularly the case in a very drawn-out reading of the Letter Scene.
Undoubtedly this performance suffered from the matinee blues, a problem that won't apply to the remaining showings when the vocal standards are likely to be higher. But although it has its moments, Pimlott's production fails to do justice either to Tchaikovsky or to the Pushkin novel on which the opera is based.
Read our interview with Marina Poplavskaya about singing Tatyana in this production and her preparation for the new ROH production of Don Carlo here.
Read our interview with Gerald Finley about singing Onegin in this production here.
And read an interview with Piotr Beczala here.