The Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden is presenting four performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Staatstheater Darmstadt (sung in Russian with German surtitles) while in an exchange arrangement the Darmstadt forces are performing Carmen in Wiesbaden some 45 kilometres away. I saw the first of the performance and it was one to treasure. The singers may not be greatest in the world but this was an utterly gripping evening of music drama.

Director Vasily Barkhatov’s conception of the work makes some changes from most traditional stagings. Here Filippyevna is a relation of Larina and her daughters, rather than a nurse. The family have been obliged to stay with her in the country, and are not happy about it. The neighbours and villagers are rowdy and menacing; only the rebellious Olga will take part in their Act 1 celebrations. And there are no balls, or even any dancing. The waltz scene for Tatyana’s name-day in Act 2 is a visually, as well as musically, stunning winter festival, complete with snowball fights, sledging and a snowman; and the Polonaise in Act 3 is a black-tie buffet reception. And yet the production was completely convincing and, crucially, in keeping with the music. There were many nice touches, such as Tatyana putting her hand on Onegin’s knee when she has turned down his advances in Act 3 neatly mirroring Onegin’s doing the same to her when he has read her letter and said that he could only love her as a brother. The duel was not with pistols but a fist fight. Both Onegin and Lensky tried to get out of it, but the chorus would not let them. The minor figures were nicely characterised.

The costumes for the first two acts were a mixture of styles and periods, and those of the final act were modern formal dress. In the first two acts much inventive use was made of a sloping ramp at the rear of the stage, which was often the location of the chorus. It gave great opportunities for sledging (it was Olga’s sledging with Onegin that provoked Lensky to challenge him to a duel). Tatyana hid under the ramp when Onegin made his first entrance, Filippyevna walked laboriously up it on her way to deliver Tatyana’s letter and it was the location for the duel. The third act was set in what might have been a hotel or a railway station. I didn’t really understand why except that it emphasised Onegin’s return from his travels, but it looked good.

Tatyana was Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian whose strong voice rose over the orchestra but more delicacy would have been desirable at times in the Letter Scene. Irish tenor Aaron Cawley was powerfully voiced Lensky but seemed sometimes to be a little strained in his celebrated aria, though there were also moments of beauty. This aria was eclipsed by the ensuing short duet with Onegin. The title role was taken by American baritone Christopher Bolduc. In the first two acts, his voice seemed somewhat subdued in comparison with Grigorian and Cawley but he made up for it in the last act, where his solos were very fine and his acting made Onegin very believable. His outbursts when trying to enter the reception alarmed the other travellers. Grigiorian was much more convincing as the young woman than as the teenage girl, both in terms of her voice and her acting, now a sophisticated and determined lady, briefly relenting to admit her love for Onegin but ultimately rejecting him.

The greatest strengths of this Eugene Onegin lay generally in the ensembles and the choruses rather than most of the solo arias (with the exception of Balduc’s Onegin) and the voices blended together well. The final scene between Onegin and Tatiana was breathtaking. Wolf Matthias Friedrich was an imposing Prince Gremin, though with occasional gruffness. The supporting cast was strong, too.

Tchaikovsky’s surging music ranging from the tender to the rumbustious and infused with Russian folksong was given an emotional and intense performance. The excellent Wiesbaden chorus were in fine voice, and the orchestra and conductor, Daniela Musca, played Tchaikovsky’s score with great intensity. The horn and oboe solos in the letter scene were particularly fine.

If Tchaikovsky wanted an intimate, powerful drama rather than grand opera for his “lyric scenes” that is exactly what was presented here.