Monday, 14 November 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Yevgeny Onegin

12 November 2016, Komische Oper Berlin

The very best opera productions often make everything look so simple. They make you wonder why so many stagings get things so wrong, why they throw far too much at dramas that don’t need it, for which less so often means more. Barry Kosky’s Komische Oper Yevgeny Onegin is one such production, where nothing feels superfluous, where everything is there for a reason.

Günter Papendell as Onegin (Photo © Iko Freese/

Above all, as with Andreas Homoki’s Meistersinger in the same theatre, it creates its own poetic universe, in which literal-minded criticisms of what might be perceived as missing—and with virtually no dancing and no change in set for the whole of the first two acts, on paper that amounted to a fair bit—are rendered obsolete before they can start even to be formulated.

Here Kosky’s poetic universe was one rooted in nature as a site of innocence and carefree happiness, but also of solitude and nostalgic longing, where the action takes place with an imaginative dreamlike fluency. Rebecca Ringst’s set, lit with ever-shifting perspectives by Franck Evin, is a realistic meadow with a central revolve and trees upstage, into which and from which characters and chorus can easily and almost imperceptibly disappear and materialise.

Only in the final act did we get an additional set, in the form of a St Petersburg salon plonked onto the meadow. In a wonderful final touch, though, this was dismantled before our eyes to return Onegin and Tatyana to the place of their first meeting: a landscape of the memory, onto which the rain now poured down. Here and elsewhere the production achieved powerful effects by sharply drawing the focus onto individual characters, making us feel and understand their own subjective point of view and feelings.

In Gremin’s aria, we stepped out of the moment as Tatyana walked in a trance over to a desperate Onegin to embody his obsession. In the Letter Scene she was simply in a spotlight downstage, but directed with such clarity and purpose that we were transported right into her emotional turmoil. In another clever touch, the tragic folly of the duel was underlined by both Onegin and Lensky being portrayed as drunk beforehand, each swigging from a bottle in sad desperation.

Of course none of this would have worked anywhere near so well without a fine cast, and as Tatyana the company’s recent Rusalka Nadja Mchantaf again showed what a compelling actress she is: she carried the Letter Scene as much through her dramatic commitment as her singing, while her transformation between the first two and last acts from openhearted innocent to self-possessed pragmatist was brilliantly conveyed. Günther Papendell was no less expert in showing Onegin’s trajectory—not the exact reverse, perhaps, but not far off it—in a compelling performance.

I really enjoyed Aleš Briscein’s bright-toned, Slavic-tinged Lensky, and Önay Köse’s youthful, light but moving Gremin. There were a few rough edges from the orchestra under Henrik Nanasi, but the conductor conducted a fluent and fleet account of the score. But It’s the clarity and poetry of Kosky’s production that made this Onegin so haunting and moving.

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