Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.
Tchaikovsky, Jewgeni Onegin. Komische Oper Berlin, 7/6/2016. Production directed by Barrie Kosky, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Klaus Bruns, dramaturgy by Simon Berger, lights by Franck Evin. Conducted by Henrik Nanasi with Lucas Meachem (Onegin), Evgenia Muraveva (Tatiana), Karolina Gumos (Olga), Aleš Briscein (Lensky), Christiane Oertel (Larina), Per Bach Nissen (Gremin), Margarita Nekrasova (Filippevna)
You can watch this production on The Opera Platform, featuring a somewhat different cast (same Lensky and Olga, different Tatiana and Onegin) than the one I discuss here.
Rebecca Ringst’s amazing unit set gives us an open field with a row of trees in the background. All the events take place here, though walls feature briefly in the Act 3 ball scene (only to be removed by visible stagehands as we move into the final scene, the civilization of the house dissolving into the garden of the past as Onegin sings his translation of the Letter Aria). The landscape lies somewhere between cultivation and wilderness. It’s a potent but ambiguous symbol: Garden of Eden, state of nature, a midsummer night’s dream. Deborah Warner’s Met/ENO Onegin had problems with its lack of set changes, leaving Tatiana putting herself to sleep in what looked like a barn. But Kosky’s field is more obviously symbolic and less specific than Warner’s monumental set, and with some careful subtitling it works.
Franck Evin’s terrific lighting (side note: this is the third Evin production I’ve seen this trip, and this one is even better than his excellent work on Mahagonny) is more expressionist than literal, moving from brilliant sunlight to twilight to a wild darkness. This darkness is lit by torches at the start of the ball, suggesting an almost sinister bacchanal, one which does turn deadly. It even starts to rain in the final minute of the opera, drenching both Onegin and Tatiana. The chorus of peasants is merely a group of tennis-playing neighbors, eliding social class—except that Tatiana is obviously quite upwardly mobile by Act 3. It also does not read as Russian.
Due to that one big set change going into Act 3, that’s where the one intermission is. This is less than ideal; Acts 1 and 2 are a really long stretch and the transition going directly from the duel at the end of Act 2 to the Act 3 Polonaise is great.
The set is the production’s primary element. It has a delicate, melancholy, slightly distant mood, but it speaks quietly. If you put this on a more conventional set, it would be a fairly conventional Onegin, with a few additions. A jam jar, introduced in the opening quartet, becomes a kind of talisman, containing Tatiana’s letter and reappearing frequently. The staging of the duel is unusual and unusually good: both Onegin and Lensky are very drunk. This is a simple change but a smart one. No wonder Lensky’s reaction is so extreme and Onegin’s response so stupid. And Onegin obviously immediately regrets it, a lot. On the other hand, by explaining Onegin’s action as solely alcohol-induced, his nihilism is toned down, meaning that an already blank character loses one of his few defining characteristics. And unfortunately he wasn’t really filled in here.
Most of the Personenregie is elegant and simple, sometimes too simple. When you take this much away, the acting has to be really good. This is the part of this production I’m not sure what to say about. This was a one-off revival of a production from earlier in the season but with a totally new Tatiana, Evgenia Muraveva, and an Einspringer (short-notice substitute) Onegin, Lucas Meachem. While both are good performers—Muraveva in particular was excellent—I’m not sure if I should take everything as representative of the premiere. This might explain why I found things closer to a conventional repertory revival of Onegin than the strikingly original set might suggest. Muraveva pulled off the Letter Aria, staged with only a book as a prop, very well, but interactions were less smooth.
Henrik Nanasi’s conducting was again on the loud side but this time I thought it worked. The orchestra had some messy string entrances but pulled off the big dances in fine style and with considerable energy. Vocally, the cast was good, even though they didn’t always seem to quite gel onstage. Muraveva has a natural and expressive stage presence and she managed the tricky transformation from shy girl to important lady while still seeming like the same person. Her soprano has a metallic edge but also a lyric flexibility in the middle range, and only becomes a bit shaky when she tries to float at softer dynamic levels. Her exceptionally big and confident top notes are the most notable part of her voice. Her Letter Scene was well-paced, sincere, and believably spontaneous.
Meachem has a deep, bass-baritone like baritone voice, and he excelled more at the big outbursts (the end was great) than the lyrical sections. Acting-wise, he didn’t make a huge impression before the final scene, but I don’t know how much rehearsal he got. It’s a substantial voice, though. As Lensky, Aleš Briscein was more forceful than lyrical, his slightly nasal and muscular tenor sounding a bit tight. (Lensky is the Yeletsky of Onegin, right? One big aria that always works. Despite these reservations, it still did here.) The supporting roles varied. Olga sounds too low for Karolina Gumos and she appeared to compensate by overacting the flirty bits like she was Lola in Cavalleria. Margarita Nekrasova made an unusually human, sympathetic Filippevna, a role often treated like a caricature but here tinged with gentle nostalgia.
I enjoyed this performance enough that I might watch the streaming video later to see how the first cast compared to this one. I don’t think there’s really any limit to the number of times I’m willing to watch this opera, really.
Previously in Onegin:
Photos copyright Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de