By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Although the Australian director and Komische Oper Intendant Barrie Kosky is well established here as the city’s operatic enfant terrible, his new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin strikes an unexpected chord. Not only does the libretto remain intact, but its scenic instructions are at times recreated to the letter. There are few moments of sarcasm, and only one in which fake blood appears. Kosky is in this case most interested in the psychological motivations of the characters, who are presented in a context at once storybook and timelessly modern.
It would nevertheless be hard to call this production, which was streamed live by the Opera Platform on Jan.31, conventional. The entire action is confined to a forest-lined meadow (sets by Rebecca Ringst), broken up only by the brief appearance of Prince Gremin’s headquarters in the third act. The idea is nothing new – the German director Claus Guth in 2008 staged all of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the middle of a dark forest. And yet the setting, brought to life by the beautiful lighting of Franck Evin, creates an at times Romantic framework for contemplating the star-crossed fates of Tatiana and Onegin.
According to the libretto of Tchaikovsky’s opera, the opening scene takes place by a shady tree, where Madame Larina is making jam on a portable stove. Kosky not only realizes this vision, but the jar of jam makes its way into the third act – to ludicrous effect. Onegin and Tatiana lick their fingers with childish delight when they first meet, and the empty jar (which the nanny Filippyevna demolishes overnight while Tatiana is writing her famous love letter to Onegin) somehow reappears at their tragic final meeting. Is it a symbol of the sweetness of life, which they cannot taste? Or a way to throw some fun into a production that otherwise sticks to stark realism? The jam jar might even be considered hyper-realist, but its presence is ultimately more silly than meaningful.
While Kosky’s characterizations similarly border on caricature, he often tells the story with a refreshing emotional directness. Tatiana’s sister, Olga, is not just outgoing but an outright pleasure-seeker, while the bookworm Tatiana at times looks so miserable that one wonders if she seeks any human contact at all. And yet by the final scene she has been transformed into a snooty housewife, unleashing her repressed passion in the pouring rain when no one is looking, only to leave Onegin helpless on the grass.
Kosky casts the leading roles with young, energetic singers who give their vocal and dramatic performances equal weight. One imagines that in another decade they will rise to the challenges of this music even more convincingly. In accordance with Kosky’s decision to reverse the house tradition of singing only in German (established by the company’s founder, Walter Felsenstein, in 1947), the opera is delivered in Russian. Latvian soprano Asmik Grigorian brought a full, natural vibrato and unaffected emotional depth to the role of Tatiana. Her Letter Aria was tortured if not devastating – her voice lacked the roundness of more mature interpreters – but she warmed up for a fierce, immediate performance in the final scene when Onegin returns begging for forgiveness.
The title character of ensemble member Günter Papendell cut an appropriately nonchalant, alpha-male figure, but his throaty, increasingly gravelly baritone interfered with his expressive purpose. As Lensky, Czech tenor Aleš Briscein tended to push his booming voice in the first act but warmed up to more ardent, resonant tones over the course of the evening. His climatic aria, “Kuda, Kuda vi udalilis” (Where have you gone, golden days of my youth?), sung after swigging liquor, demonstrated unflagging breath support but lacked a sense of tenderness. Karolina Gumos was a reliably coquettish Olga, and Christiane Oertel was a lively presence as her mother, Larina. Stand-out performances came, not surprisingly, from Russian natives: the guest mezzo Margarita Nekrasova, as Filippyevna, and the bass and ensemble member Alexey Antonov as Prince Gremin.
The house chorus, expertly choreographed by Kosky and dressed in costumes by turns pastoral or elegantly regal (Klaus Bruns), was both energetic and polished in its delivery. Particularly memorable were the female peasants of the first act who appeared to the love-smitten Tatiana like a mirage. The orchestra under general music director Henrik Nánási produced singing, legato lines in the strings, but alas, homogeneity and beauty of tone were already lacking in the overture. A steely tone of limited dynamic nuance pervaded the evening, and while it was possible to rely on a few elegant woodwind solos, the brass was shockingly rough toward the end of Act One.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.