First seen at the Komische Oper Berlin, Barrie Kosky’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was highly anticipated in Zurich, in no small part because his Macbeth saw him take “Director of the Year” last year. While this production was more conservative and traditional that his usual fare, it underscored the strength of the principal singers, whose voices all seemed born to their roles.

Liliana Nikiteanu (Madame Larina) and Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna) © Monika Rittershaus
Liliana Nikiteanu (Madame Larina) and Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna)
© Monika Rittershaus

First performed in 1879, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was composed to a libretto by the composer, after Pushkin. Here in Zurich, the curtain went up on a broad forest glen, where among a few green hillocks, the noble Madame Larina and the nanny, Filippyevna, were putting up the season’s jams. Larina’s bookish daughter Tatyana is shown riveted to her reading, while Tatyana’s lively younger sister Olga romps around the stage trying to stir up interest in her antics. It’s no surprise to hear her sing, “everyone calls me a child.”

The Zurich Opera Chorus made a particularly impressive and energetic entrance where their festive day costumes in pastel colours were like a breath of country air. Their rousing call around “a harvest gathered in” was accompanied by raised baguettes, white parasols, fans and much-boosted spirits. What’s more, they were quick on their feet despite the tremendously thick carpet of uneven “grass” beneath them.

When her sister’s fiancé Lensky brings his friend Onegin to a party en plein air, the bookish Tatyana is smitten from the start, and sends him a passionate letter that same evening to explain herself. I can only laud Olga Bezsmertna’s tremendous vocal skills as Tatyana; her ability to seamlessly change range, color her part, and project to the last inch of the house were exemplary. Yet in this staging, there were devices that worked against her. First, the letter scene came in part under a brutal spotlight pointed at her the back, only her arms and coiling hands visible. It was tortured, indeed, but I understand that from the higher perches of the house, it could not be seen at all. Further: lovely as her first costume was, its light summery cotton tulle shimmied furiously as she sang in that same scene, an unfortunate distraction.

Olga Bezsmertna (Tatyana) © Monika Rittershaus
Olga Bezsmertna (Tatyana)
© Monika Rittershaus

As the spoiled, seemingly heartless protagonist, Peter Mattei sang Onegin, and his rich baritone, broad range and faultless delivery were as good as it gets. What’s more, his caddish character was made easy to loathe. He shoves Tatyana and her feelings off as if he’s were entirely oblivious to emotion, humiliating her by accusing her of “exchanging one passing fancy for another”. As such, there’s a winning vignette later: Tatyana circles on the revolving stage at the ball, eyeing him with a film-ripe evil eye for having humiliated her so devastatingly.

The superb Pavol Breslik sang the hot-headed Lensky, who accuses Onegin of stealing Olga’s affection, simply because he danced with her too often. The jealous man’s pain-filled “Kuda, kuda” in Act 2 came right before the duel that would kill him, and in it, his silvery voice stole every aching heart. His emptying a vodka bottle made sense, but that he started the aria on the ground with his jacket over his head, seemed unfounded.

Olga Bezsmertna (Tatyana) and Peter Mattei (Onegin) © Monika Rittershaus
Olga Bezsmertna (Tatyana) and Peter Mattei (Onegin)
© Monika Rittershaus

Act 3’s staging was, however, ingenious: first in the noble home that Onegin, six years later, had made his own. Dissatisfied, lonely, tired of perpetual travel, it was logical that the set, as “home”, was dismantled right before our eyes as he sang. Unexpectedly, he meets Tatyana again, who has made the transition from fragile creature to noble wife. Her husband Prince Gremin lauds her in his single aria to the point of worship, and Christopf Fischesser’s was a sterling, almost conversational delivery. That said, the prize for character acting in the opera overall goes to Margerita Nekrasova, Filippyevna, whose voice, expression, posture and costume were all perfect for her role.

Finally, under the dynamic young Stanislav Kochanovsky, the orchestra also gave an exciting performance, even in a score whose harmonies and repetitions are somewhat predictable, and sometimes sound kitschy to the modern audience. Not so here, albeit the sublime solo oboe, flute, clarinet and horn passing a single lyrical line among them was enough to bring out a handkerchief. 

****1