Mess with Eugene Onegin at your peril. Several characters in Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera learn this the hard way. But the warning applies to directors, too. The relationship between Tchaikovsky’s assured “lyric scenes” and Pushkin’s dazzling irony is a delicate one. Unfortunately, the late Steven Pimlott’s production, here revived by Elaine Kidd for the first time since the director’s tragic death last year, blunders gratuitously into the elaborate dialectic between author and composer. The result is a theatrical jumble.
Again and again, Pimlott allowed an intrusive finger, and sometimes an elbow, to put pressure on the opera’s finely constructed balances. The result is never happy. Tchaikovsky aimed at a romantic naturalism somewhat at odds with Pushkin’s take of emotional self-deception. But Pimlott thought he knew better than the composer. From the start, the characters come down to the front of the stage and sing in the grand opera manner that Tchaikovsky sought to avoid.
But that is one of Pimlott’s minor offences. His most serious misjudgment lay in interpolating a surrealistic dream scene from Pushkin that Tchaikovsky never used — bears, frogs, skeletons and other grotesques shimmy across the stage like a scene by Fuseli. The effect is to destroy the tragicomic realism of the row between Onegin and Lensky at the country ball to celebrate Tatyana’s birthday, on which the story turns. The production is off-balance from then on.
That said, musically, this is a very distinguished revival. Best of all is the fluent and idiomatic conducting of Jiri Belohlavek, who moves the score along delicately while never overlooking its darker and more declamatory side. The Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava — who shares the role in this production with Marina Poplavskaya — makes a vocally compelling Tatyana. Her letter scene, the heart and soul of the opera, has an authenticity that only a Slav voice can bring to it. But Gerzmava is a wooden actor, not helped by Antony McDonald’s unflattering costumes, and, in a production that purports to see the drama through Tatyana’s eyes, this lack of credibility is a failing.
Occasionally straining, Gerald Finley nevertheless gives a classic Onegin, suavely assured but hopelessly mistaken about almost everything — Covent Garden owes this fine artist a better production than this. Piotr Beczala is a good Lensky and Diana Montague an exemplary Larina. Ekaterina Semenchuk has a remarkable voice, but overdoes it as Olga. Hans-Peter Konig struggles with Gremin’s famous aria, though his role in this misconceived production is reduced to even less than usual.