Komische Oper Berlin, 2016
Henrik Nánási, Barrie Kosky, Günter Papendell, Asmik Grigorian, Karolina Gumos, Aleš Briscein, Christiane Oertel, Alexey Antonov, Margarita Nekrasova, Yakov Strizhak, Christoph Späth
Opera Platform - 31 January 2016
Looked at it dispassionately the plot of Eugene Onegin is a slight one, but Tchaikovsky's beautiful opera is by no means a work to view dispassionately. Musically and lyrically its themes are much deeper and resonant and it's much more than a story of unrequited love, which is a commonplace episode that typically plays a small part in many of the great works of Russian literature (as does the obligatory duel scene). Even if Eugene Onegin holds this as the emotional core of the work, with the clever structural twist of the role of the unrequited lover being reversed later in the work and the whole thing even revolving around a duel centrepiece, the themes of the opera can be seen in a broader view to be just as much about time and perspective.
That also sounds like a rather 'dispassionate' way to view one of the most beautiful and lyrical works in Russian music and literature, and of course, its brilliance lies in Tchaikovsky's own very personal and sensitive response to the themes Pushkin explores in the work. Eugene Onegin is not as straightforward then as being a work about the innocence of youth that becomes older and wiser through experience, it's more about how time itself can transform feelings. Those feelings and the shared experience of Tatyana and Onegin during the time of their meeting on the Larin country estate and the tragic transform over time in unexpected ways, but at the heart there is a strong ring of truth to them.
The transformation that takes place in the intervening years is by no means a straightforward progression, and it would be a mistake to tie Eugene Onegin down to direct cause and effect. Tchaikovsky weaves many other elements and colourful scenes that are seemingly there to enliven the otherwise melancholic tone of torment and regret that dominates, as well as help fill out the thin plot of the opera, but all of them contribute to the greater themes of the work. Various aspects and thematic connections can be drawn out just as much from Lensky and Olga, as well as nurse Filippyevna's account of her arranged marriage at the age of thirteen that deepened into something warm and loving over time.
The place of men and women in society, the pressures to conform to social expectations as well as romantic ideals; all of these issues contribute to a minor incident that is nonetheless of vast significance to Tatyana and later Onegin - even if the relative importance of what it means tragically never coincides within both of them at the same time. "Happiness was once so near, so near!". There is something inherently and vitally Russian about that, something that is at the same time both passionate in the exploration and expression of one's deeper nature, yet also dispassionate in its abandonment to fate and the course it will set them upon. This idea of huge forces being set into motion by an outwardly minor matter is something that must be captured in any successful stage presentation of the work.
In line with the nature of the work itself, there are many ways to balance and blend those themes. It can be as simple and austere as Robert Carson's production, letting the light and the music express everything that isn't brought out on the surface, or you can throw everything up there on the stage in an all-encompassing Stefan Herheim manner and let the music hold the true course of the sentiments. With Barrie Kosky at the Komische Oper in Berlin it could go either way, but you can at least be sure that it is probably going to be colourful and elaborate. That certainly is the impression you get at the start of Act I, where a whole hyper-realistic chunk of the Russian countryside appears to be deposited right up there on the stage.
This is not however the kind of kitsch forest scene that you will find for example in Otto Schenk's The Cunning Little Vixen. It's not that Kosky is adverse to a bit of kitsch and camp when it's appropriate, but in the case of Eugene Onegin the set serves that deeper purpose of the work. The single forest scene, the lump of Russian countryside that remains in place throughout most of the opera, reflects the importance of the location and of nature in the work. Without getting too bogged down in period detail, which isn't as important as the broader themes, it does however also suggest memories of the past - on how the golden days of youth are reflected upon in moments of crisis. Even when we are in a ballroom in the final scene of the opera, the rough grass that serves as a carpet remains there as a reminder that the past never leaves us.
Kosky of course pays just as much attention to the human drama as the broader Russian themes of the work and its considerations in regards to time and memory. The human emotions are not so much conflated with or inflated by their proximity to the Russian landscape, as much as given the vast space they need to be fully expressed. Tchaikovsky's High Romanticism isn't the same as Debussy's Expressionism, but a stage production is capable of highlighting these human sentiments in terms of light, mood and nature. Kosky's production uses shadow and light, uses the trees, sunlight and moonlight not so much to heighten drama, as much as connect human feelings with nature; relating those features to the surge of excitement, anxiety, melancholy that Tchaikovsky pours into the melodies of the score.
Playing to the human sentiments, the actions and behaviour of each and every one of the characters touches on the essence of their nature in a way that, for example, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw did not in their Met production when the inner truth of the work was betrayed for the sake of stage drama. The casting helps here, the Komische's production benefitting from a relatively young cast who prove to be quite capable of the dramatic and the singing challenges that the work presents. All of them are tested in passages, but the lyrical beauty of the singing and what it reveals about the characters is handled wonderfully. The Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian in particular is rivetting as Tatjana, her singing and the emotional force behind it impressive; Günter Papendell is a less brusque and a softer Onegin than you usually find, but it works well with the reading here.
There are no major deviations in this production away from the familiar trajectory of the plot and characterisation, but Kosky introduces little revealing touches that present an alternative or more ambiguous way of looking at the situation. Here, for example, you can feel some sympathy for Onegin, not disdain for his arrogance and aloofness. More so than Tatyana, he's the one who comes across as naive in believing he knows it all when he rejects her written declaration of love. Even Tatyana, in their final scene together, recognises that Onegin behaved honourably towards her and didn't take advantage of a young vulnerable country girl. The handling of the duel is also important and Kosky's choice to keep it off-stage works well. Onegin's horror for what has occurred is directed straight afterwards towards Tatyana who has turns up on the scene, making the kind of impact that is necessary for what follows.
What follows of course isn't just a matter of role-reversal. The past still has a hold over Tatyana, who is not indifferent to Onegin, but time has separated them in a way that is impossible to recover. Kosky's production and the direction of the performances captures this with all the ambiguity of feeling that the desperate struggle of the final scene requires. Most productions at the Komische are in German language, I believe, but the decision to keep Yevgeniy Onegin in Russian (even Monsieur Triquet's song is in Russian, which I think is the first time I've heard it sung in anything but French) is an essential element in keeping the whole production as authentic as possible. The fine performance of the orchestra under the Henrik Nánási is another vital component that the Komische seem to get perfectly right, with the chorus also meeting every expectation.
Links: Opera Platform, Komische Oper