When the late Steven Pimlott’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Pushkin opera was first presented by the Royal Opera, large stretches of it bored me as much as a life in the country bores Mr Onegin. From the drippy, homoerotic front-tab paintings to the inert crowd scenes, it seemed far too fey and limpid.
But what a difference a change of Eugene makes. To go from handsome but wooden Dmitri Hvorostovsky to mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Gerald Finley is to swap a paddle round a millpond for a white-water rafting trip. This Onegin seduces a more than willing Olga with a wicked glint in Act II, then crashes through shocked aristocrats in Act III, swigging what’s probably not lemonade from a hip flask. True, Finley doesn’t command such velvety tone. But his explosion of nihilistic despair after Tatyana’s rejection of him is thrilling music-theatre.
And his Tatyana, the young Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, reserves her most impassioned singing and acting for that scene, too. She has a potentially fabulous voice: clear and focused, yet also full of colour and with a reservoir of power that enables her to ride the biggest fortes like a surfer on a wave. But earlier, particularly in the letter scene, she doesn’t work hard enough to project the turmoil of doubt, exhilaration and trepidation experienced by an adolescent girl pouring out her heart for the first time. It’s reflective rather than impulsive.
Nor is she helped by Jiri Belohlavek’s often stiff and sedate conducting. The emotional temperature in the pit rises a bit as the evening progresses, but Belohlavek needs to put a lot more snap, crackle and pop into his allegros if he’s going to project the level of barely suppressed hysteria that Tchaikovsky surely expected.
Elsewhere, there’s an appealingly acted and delicately sung Olga from Ekaterina Semenchuk, a superbly sonorous Prince Gremin from the German man-mountain Hans-Peter Konig, a slightly underpowered and vocally pinched Lensky from Piotr Beczala, and two seasoned British mezzos — Diana Montague and Elizabeth Sikora — to put over the roles of mother and nurse with style and musicality.
The staging of the great ball scene, and Lensky’s unwise call for pistols at dawn, seems much more highly charged than it did two years ago. On the other hand, turning half the stage into an ice rink — for three minutes of skating — seems just as unnecessary.