At the start of Eugene Onegin, two women are making jam in the Russian countryside, preserving the heady taste, smell and memory of summer. Director Barrie Kosky seizes on these little jars packed with sensuality as the perfect theme for Tchaikovsky's intense opera of thwarted love. The main characters all steal tiny tastes of the bright red, sticky ooziness in the opening scene as Komische Oper Berlin’s acclaimed 2016 production reaches the Edinburgh International Festival.

Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) © Ryan Buchanan
Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana)
© Ryan Buchanan

The tangled story of Tatyana and Onegin goes back to where they first meet in an idyllic late summer. Rebecca Ringst’s ever-present, luxuriantly grassy meadow with trees and far off shadows underlines the agonies of what might have been if Tatyana’s girlhood infatuation had run unchecked. When we meet the mature characters, Gremin’s palatial St Petersburg house appears in Act 3, but is dismantled before our very eyes and we are returned to Madame Larina’s garden with its wild greenery evoking powerful memories. Kosky's poetic storytelling is superb, shaggy meadows pulling us back to ask who made the best choices in this complicated, messy tale, the stunning set enriched by Franck Evin’s moodily atmospheric lighting.

<i>Eugene Onegin</i> © Ryan Buchanan
Eugene Onegin
© Ryan Buchanan

The singing was superb throughout, but Kosky gets beyond the music with telling stage direction and character development. The chorus of harvest festival peasants emerging from the shadows were a nuanced collection of individuals, slightly light vocally as they busied themselves with detail, clambering about on a central revolve, but sounding fuller when they took to the front of the stage. Margarita Nekrasova’s nanny Filipyevna and Liliana Nikiteanu’s Larina were endearing jam-makers, voices blending perfectly, the latter revealing her story and making the most of trying to impose a childhood regime on bookish Tatyana, now outgrowing such things.

Oleksiy Palchykov was a fine Lensky, bright voiced, fervent and volcanically jealous, taking a nasty swing at Olga but redeeming himself somewhat when his beautiful aria was devastatingly sung. As Onegin, Günter Papendell’s voice was gorgeously seductive, bowling the girlish Tatyana over, but cruelly blustering in his dismissal of her letter. His lovely voice was not enough to entice the married Tatyana away from her husband Gremin, Dmitri Ivashchenko's gloriously warm bass, beyond a final brief farewell kiss. Karolina Gumos was an innocently sweet Olga, Christoph Späth’s Monsieur Triquet a little underpowered but charming as he lit the birthday candles.

Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) © Ryan Buchanan
Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana)
© Ryan Buchanan

Owning this production on opening night was award-winning soprano Asmik Grigorian as Tatyana, a singer who can completely inhabit a role. Barely leaving the stage for the first two acts, it was hard to watch anyone else as we saw her escape rural drudgery by reading, and witness the kindling of her girlish infatuation with Onegin in a message in a jam jar. Her Letter Scene, delivered on a darkened stage in a single spotlight, was unforgettable, her mercurial change of facial expressions expressing the joy of first love, her writhing hands telling a different story as she turned away from us. Grigorian’s strong bright soprano opened out at the top thrillingly, but her lower register was golden and smouldering, devastating as Onegin passed her over when she literally throws herself at him. Married to Gremin, her mature Tatyana, in a flowing scarlet velvet dress, was initially haughty, then riveting when confronted by Onegin with his own jam jar letter, emotions and memories playing across her face as she laid the ghost of what might have happened if those hazy summery pastoral feelings had been reciprocated. Tatyana’s wisdom and loyalty to Gremin leaves Onegin prostrate and devastated, but as she stands over him and the rain arrives, it’s clear that she's made the correct choice.

Günter Papendell (Onegin) and Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) © Ryan Buchanan
Günter Papendell (Onegin) and Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana)
© Ryan Buchanan

The Orchestra of Komische Oper under Ᾱinars Rubiķis' stylishly pointed conducting produced a distinctive palette of sound, settling down to some fine horn playing and woodwind solos, sparkling detail from the strings and thrilling in those big Tchaikovsky moments. Klaus Bruns modern-ish costumes completed a visually arresting production, chorus moving from rural peasant to sumptuous pastel ballgowns and evening attire, Tatyana from a girl’s chaste summer dress to confident flowing scarlet gown.

It was a night to remember and a delight to see another fully staged Kosky production at the Edinburgh International Festival after his trademark cartoon Magic Flute in 2015, and the wonderful introduction of Asmik Grigorian to Scotland.

****1