The operatic merry-go-round is a strange beast. In April, Peter Mattei and Anna Netrebko were starring together in Deborah Warner's production of Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera, the final matinee beamed into cinemas across the globe. Less than a month later and here they are in Paris, reunited in the same roles but in Willy Decker's staging. It's no surprise this pair should be in such demand for, in many respects, they prove ideal casting and I'm not sure I've heard either role better sung... and that's a lot of Onegins!

Peter Mattei (Onegin) and Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Peter Mattei (Onegin) and Anna Netrebko (Tatyana)
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Netrebko arguably waited too long to add Tatyana to her repertoire. Ever since I first saw her, with her Audrey Hepburn looks, perched on a balcony as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, she struck me as my ideal Tatyana. That was in July 2000, yet Tatyana had to wait until 2013. Now, she looks a touch too matronly for the shy 17-year old experiencing the first pangs of love, but vocally Netrebko's Letter Scene was stupendous, scaling down her ample soprano to capture all the girlish excitement, turning it into a half-whispered declaration at times. She acted the role passionately, sobbing and snivelling through Onegin's condescending lecture, bemused and embarrassed at her name day party. It was in Act 3 though that she really excelled, magisterial as the belle of Petersburg society. Her chest register has such a molasses richness that one could imagine her singing the mezzo role of Eboli one day. Netrebko's voice has tremendous blade, slicing through ensembles effortlessly.

Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Anna Netrebko (Tatyana)
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Mattei must be a contender for the most beautiful baritone voice. His is such a handsome, noble sound, with honeyed delivery of long phrases. His Onegin is arrogant and thoughtless; when he pulls up a chair before delivering his rejection to Tatyana, it is not for her, but for him to rest his coat upon. For a very tall man, Mattei is nimble on his pins, dancing an elegant cotillon (one of the few examples of dance being permitted in Decker's staging). Onegin's final appeal to Tatyana was sung very slowly, tenderly sculpted phrases for sure, but robbing it of impetuosity. Mattei did exactly the same in New York, so I don't think it was down to conductor Edward Gardner, who followed his singers attentively. Elsewhere, Gardner allowed the Paris strings to glow in Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score and the horn solo in the Letter Scene was splendid. The ladies' chorus was not always tightly disciplined, running behind the beat as the servant girls lay the table.

<i>Eugene Onegin</i> © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Eugene Onegin
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Of the rest of the cast, Pavel Černoch stood out as an ardent Lensky, with no unnecessary pushing of the line in an exquisite “Kuda, kuda” before his duel. Alexander Tsymbalyuk sang Gremin's aria with real grace at a flowing tempo. Varduhi Abrahamyan was a very dark-toned Olga (needed with a Tatyana of Netrebko's darkness) and Elena Zaremba's Madame Larina was pure class. Raúl Giménez's Triquet was grossly caricatured by the director.

If only Netrebko and Mattei had been served by a better production. Decker's staging, originally for Cologne, has played in Paris since 1995 and I'm surprised the French have put up with it for so long. Wolfgang Gussmann's steeply raked set is like looking out through a giant cardboard box tipped on its side, the interior scribbled in orange and yellow like a child's colouring book for the wheatfield of Act 1, shifting to monochrome from the duel scene onwards. Decker's staging is spare. He takes every opportunity to dismiss the chorus from the stage when they're not singing. No Polonaise was danced.

Petersburg Ball scene © Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris
Petersburg Ball scene
© Guergana Damianova | Opéra National de Paris

Poor Tatyana is once again denied a bedroom in which to pen her confession of love, forced to use a chair as a writing desk. She witnesses the duel where Onegin kills Lensky (an idea John Cranko used in his ballet version). Decker, like several directors since, interferes with Tchaikovsky's structure, opting for a single interval in the middle of Act 2. This damages the plot's arc and the fact that several years elapse between the duel and Onegin's return to Petersburg. There is one spectacular moment – the arrival of a huge crystal chandelier for Act 3 – but you can't hang a production on a single coup de théâtre. It was the singing, rather than the staging, that made this a memorable evening.