Royal Opera House
When the late Steven Pimlott’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was first staged at the Royal Opera two years ago, it had a frosty critical reception, largely because too much of it seemed either routine or irrelevant. Why, for instance, do we get Flandrin’s famous painting of a nude lad in profile as a front-drop for the first part of the work? Try as anyone might, it would be hard work to find any gay subtext in this opera. The composer clearly identified with Tatyana, and as always wrote his best love music when the object of passion is a man, but what has that to do with the blow-up? And why is the great Polonaise, which sets the scene for Onegin’s reintroduction to Tatyana after years of bored wandering, set as a funeral procession, with, as two years ago under a different conductor, a drastically underplayed account of that wonderful music? Why is there an elaborate scene change for a few seconds of skating on the river, striking as that looks? One suspects that the only answer is that Pimlott, and the revival director Elaine Kidd, can find nothing new to say about the characters so can only resort to messing around with the staging.
Not, I think, that there is anything new to say about these characters, but nor does there need to be. All we need is the maximum amount of animation on the part of the singers and their conductor, and the opera will be as moving as it can be, one of the great original works in the genre. Jiri Belohlavek is an exasperating conductor, who can work for long stretches on auto- pilot. Worse than that, in a score which needs careful tending if it isn’t to seem merely episodic, he lets tension sag, as he did even in the Letter scene, which was only affecting in certain stretches thanks to the inwardness of Hibla Gerzmava’s Tatyana.