With prices of up to £150 for a stalls seat, Covent Garden has come up with a two-for-one offer for its new Tchaikovsky production. No, not two tickets for the price of one, silly, but two Onegins and two Tatyanas simultaneously on stage. In almost every scene we get one of the protagonists gawping at their younger self in action, but the younger never sings. The mature self is left to vocalise the agony of experience and step back into the drama when it no longer suits the director, Kasper Holten, to retain the mime – all very confusing.
Is this the mature Tatyana’s flashback, as the opening sequence implies, or the contrite Onegin’s, as his silent interventions later on suggest? The answer is: both. In his first production here since becoming director of opera, Holten wants us to return to Pushkin and read the entire opera as the lovers’ shared memory-play, evoked through the letters they wrote each other in the heat of passion. It’s a poorly thought-out concept. The performance is littered with alienating devices that complicate a simple narrative, crowding out Tchaikovsky’s psychologically perceptive music and leaving us with nothing to imagine.
On a more positive note, there’s just one set – a row of heavy portals housing bookshelves (Mia Stensgaard) – and the costumes (Katrina Lindsay) are vaguely in period. But it is hard to identify with a Tatyana (Krassimira Stoyanova), who looks middle-aged, sings without feeling and is constantly upstaged by an idealised, nubile version of her younger self.
There can be no such problem with Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin. From start to finish his anti-hero is socially and emotionally dysfunctional, which makes for a fascinating study – and Keenlyside, commanding the stage in voice, presence and gesture, makes the most of it. The emphasis on the two lovers and their dancer-doubles despatches Pavol Breslik’s Lensky and Elena Maximova’s Olga to the sidelines, and it is left to Peter Rose’s Gremin to salvage some no-nonsense role-play from the final act.
Robin Ticciati conducts as if determined to put his stamp on a score whose style he does not yet understand. The result is brisk, perfunctory and as heartless as the staging.