Unveiled in early 2016, Barrie Kosky’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin looks set to become one of the classics of the recent repertory of the Komische Oper. It’s a staging that has all the best of the director, and none of the excesses that can be a part of his work. One comes away with the impression that this is a piece he loves and cares about deeply – as surely anyone who loves and cares about opera deeply should.

Karolina Gumos (Olga), Asmik Grigorian, Christiane Oertel (Larina) Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de (2016)
Karolina Gumos (Olga), Asmik Grigorian, Christiane Oertel (Larina) Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de (2016)

And this starts with an apparently minor detail in the stage directions of the very opening, something that becomes a telling visual leitmotif: Larina and Filipyevna making jam. In a booklet interview Kosky tells us that, though he of course never feels any slavish requirement to follow such directions, he felt compelled to observe this idea. "I love this one in particular," he explains, and it sets the tone for a staging of compelling detail and concentration. 

Rebecca Ringst’s set is, of course, immediately striking: a lush grassy meadow, its central mount on a revolve, leading into a wood behind. Franck Evin’s lighting feels infinitely expressive, and is used by Kosky to shift the perspective suddenly and unexpectedly. The solitude and loneliness of Onegin or especially Tatyana (this essentially becomes her opera) are strikingly, almost shockingly, underlined, while the interrogation of contrasts and viewpoints within the production’s deeply poetic and dreamlike aesthetic is constant: the outdoors suddenly becomes the indoors, and vice versa; the individual is suddenly shown to be painfully alone in the crowd; nature shifts from something that brings happiness to a backdrop for the most painful solitude. The forest upstage is a place both of promise and threat; it’s telling that the duel between Lensky and Onegin – both barely able to walk or take matters seriously after a night of heavy drinking – takes place there, out of sight. 

Asmik Grigorian, Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna) and Karolina Gumos (Olga) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Asmik Grigorian, Margarita Nekrasova (Filippyevna) and Karolina Gumos (Olga)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

The decision to delay the interval until after that fifth scene, too, is a brilliant one, allowing the events of the tragedy to build up an unstoppable, almost suffocating momentum, an effect intensified by Jordan de Souza’s urgent, impassioned conducting of the score. The addition of some palace walls for the subsequent St Petersburg scene (here as elsewhere, the dancing is minimal) only temporarily moves us from the dreamlike rustic idyll of the rest of the action. And they don’t last long, removed – somewhat precariously – to return us to nature for the final scene: Tatyana and Onegin together, but painfully alone, where it all began. 

The cast for this season’s run is largely the same as that which featured last season. Günter Papendell’s Onegin, the voice appealingly woody in tone, arguably overplays the haughtiness in his initial dismissal of Tatyana, but achieves impressive dramatic intensity in his subsequent scenes both with her and with Aleš Briscein’s outstanding Lensky. The Czech tenor has an immediately engaging and bright voice, with a pleasing slavic tang, allied to an unfailingly sympathetic stage manner. He remains likeable despite the fact that Kosky is unflinching in underlining his jealous streak.

Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) and Günter Papendell (Onegin) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de (2016)
Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) and Günter Papendell (Onegin)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de (2016)

Önay Köse’s Gremin, younger than the norm, is distinguished by a lovely rounded and easily projected bass. Maragarita Nekrasova is an ideally warm and caring Filipyevna, and a special mention for Christiane Oertel’s Larina: the mezzo here marked her 30th anniversary as a member of the Komische Oper’s ensemble and remains, as Kosky himself noted in a speech, as fresh, engaging and professional as ever. 

Maria Fischer presents an immediately likeable, carefree Olga, beautifully contrasted to intense Tatyana of Nadja Mchantaf. And if the final two scenes here are underlined as being Onegin’s, the first five scenes are very much Tatyana’s. The soprano barely leaves the stage before the interval and owns the drama with acting of compelling and often heartbreaking commitment, drawing us in to her experience, her sorrow and solitude. Mchantaf’s appealing soprano might not bloom quite as one might like, but as the full package she delivers a profoundly moving and powerful performance.