Eugene Onegin Opera North, Leeds
Eugene Onegin

Opera North, Leeds

It is a long time since I have seen so much of the curtain in an opera house. But in Dalia Ibelhaupaite's new production of the curtain is lowered, and the house lights partially raised, after every one of Tchaikovsky's seven "lyrical scenes". It can hardly be to change the scenery, for there's not a lot of scenery to change. It seems a pity to dissipate atmosphere and continuity so unnecessarily. And at its best this production creates a lot of atmosphere.

The Larins' country estate, where everything begins, was very much a working farm. The jam-making was a serious business, and the sheaves of corn brought in by the chorus of peasants were placed within a vast barn on the left of the stage. Plenty of words, in David Lloyd-Jones's translation, could be heard, and Eiddwen Harrhy as Madame Larina, and Frances McCafferty as an outstanding Filipyevna, created the right homely ethos, with its undertones of existential disappointment: "God sends us habit from above / In place of happiness and love".

The first half culminated in a brilliant staging of the Larins' ball, colourful, inventive and full of detail. Monsieur Triquet (Mark Curtis), whose couplets in honour of Tatyana's nameday can be tiresome, was a conjurer as well as a singer, and the effect was delightful. A deaf old lady tried to eavesdrop with an ear trumpet. A huge birthday cake was carried in. In the background was a billiard table - shades of Chekhov - and Lensky got drunk before he felt brave enough to make his fatal and ludicrous challenge to Onegin.

Rightly, this lively and informal country party was sharply contrasted with the stylish but boring formality of the St Petersberg ballroom in which, after several years, Onegin meets the now sophisticated Tatyana again, and falls in love with her - or thinks he does. This spectacle of black and white, blue and grey, simply done by costumes and drapes and a suspended cornice, won a round of applause when the curtain rose.

At the very end, after the final stormy interview between Tatyana and Onegin, Gremin (a still resonant Norman Bailey) appeared in the doorway to confront Onegin. It was a powerful touch. But we could have done with more such details. The texture of the production was at times dangerously sparse.

Still, there was much in both production and performance to move us and to give pleasure. Alwyn Mellor brought tremendous intensity to Tatyana's letter scene, and made a pitiful weeping figure in the next scene when Onegin so coldly rejects her. But her acting was awkward and at times overdone. Peter Savidge sang finely as Onegin. Words were always audible, and he had the right kind of elegant, aloof presence. But where was the charm to offset the coldness? It remained a puzzle why even the impressionable Tatyana should have fallen for this rather wooden and heartless figure. As the impulsive Lensky, Paul Nilon sang with total commitment and made a strong impression, even if his voice is not ideally liquid. But the brief regretful duet with Onegin before the duel was marvellously clear and sombre.

The conductor was Steven Sloane, whose appointment as Opera North's music director from August 1999 had just been announced. It was an auspicious debut. Ensemble was not always perfect, but he obtained some playing of extraordinary intensity, and, was it my imagination or did the horn solos have an authentically old Russian sound to them?

Grand Theatre, Leeds, and touring to 3 July.