“Try not to remember in winter how you plucked roses in spring.” When the older baritone delivers the final line of Tchaikovsky’s romance Reconciliation, is he musing on his present situation? Or is he offering words of wisdom to the other two men, who seem to be younger incarnations of himself? It’s one of many questions of interpretation left open to the viewer in Christof Loy’s deeply moving new production for Oper Frankfurt which goes under the title of Tchaikovsky’s most famous song, best known in English as None but the Lonely Heart.

Mariusz Kłubczuk and Vladislav Sulimsky
© Monika Rittershaus

This is no Liederabend with singers taking their turn to file up to the piano. It’s a fully staged drama of nearly two hours in which baritone Vladislav Sulimsky’s character seems to reminisce on his past, haunted by loves and losses, romances and rejections, before resigning himself to life alone. He drains a glass of water (a possible reference to the composer's own death). The action takes place beneath a crystal chandelier in a drawing room lined with duck egg blue flock wallpaper (set designs by Herbert Murauer). Young Polish pianist Mariusz Kłubczuk is on stage throughout. There’s an outsized golden picture frame on the wall, sometimes a video screen, which opens up to reveal another stage, concealing further memories. The unnamed characters come and go, three men in formal evening wear and two women, one (soprano Olesya Golovneva) an ethereal figure in a Giselle-type Romantic tutu, the other (mezzo Kelsey Lauritano) more aloof in black trouser suit.

Andrea Carè and Kelsey Lauritano
© Monika Rittershaus

There are dramatic interactions between the protagonists – passionate embraces and ardent appeals, wild arguments where recriminations fly, a chair flung across the stage (how I’ve pined for some good old-fashioned operatic furniture abuse!). Young baritone Mikołaj Trąbka supports Golovneva when she goes up en pointe, her eyes glistening with tears. (What is it with Loy and sopranos as ballerinas? Golovneva was also one of his dancing Rusalkas in Madrid last year.) In Amid the din of the ball, Sulimsky recalls that breathtaking moment of first meeting; “I caught a glimpse of you, but mystery veiled your features,” he sings, as the tulle of Golovneva’s tutu evades his fingers.

Olesya Golovneva and Vladislav Sulimsky
© Monika Rittershaus

At the performance’s midpoint, the partition opens to reveal a landscape painting, music stands and a cello abandoned on a bed. The Adagio cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s string sextet Souvenir de Florence plays (unseen), evoking strong memories in all the characters. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence by Andreas Heise, dripping with poignancy. No dry eyes here.

The selection of songs mixes the familiar with the rarely heard, including a vocal quartet that Tchaikovsky composed on a theme by Mozart. Sulimsky gets some of the real gems, including On the Golden Fields and the despairing Again, as before, alone which closes the performance. He is a Mariinsky regular, where he sings a lot of Verdi roles, and his dark, brooding baritone sounded gorgeous here. Golovneva’s lyric soprano was most moving, and she could sour her tone for the vehemence in Zemfira’s Song. I hadn’t associated tenor Andrea Carè with Russian repertoire before, but he sang The Corals with bravado and acted touchingly, although his tone can be quite pinched.

Mikołaj Trąbka, Mariusz Kłubczuk, Olesya Golovneva and Kelsey Lauritano
© Monika Rittershaus

Young Oper Frankfurt ensemble members Trąbka and Lauritano impressed. Trąbka's baritone was occasionally coarse, but this suited the impetuous, lovelorn character he played. Lauritano does a nice line in disdainful looks and peppered the Gypsy Girl’s Song with a touch of bitterness and a golden ring to her top notes. To her fell the plum title song, delivered alone on stage with heartfelt emotion. She sang Frenzied Nights in traditional “Lieder pose” on the stage within a stage with second pianist, Nikolai Petersen, Sulimsky as sole audience member. Definitely a singer to watch.

Mikołaj Trąbka, Andrea Carè, Olesya Golovneva, Kelsey Lauritano and Vladislav Sulimsky
© Monika Rittershaus

Principal pianist Kłubczuk was superb throughout and also enjoyed the solo spotlight, particularly in Mikhail Pletnev’s finger-crunching transcription of the finale from The Sleeping Beauty, during which all five singers kick up their heels, light-hearted relief before Sulimsky’s introspective final scene.

Loy has created something really special here, an evening of intensity and intimacy which deserves a life beyond pandemic restrictions.

This performance was reviewed from the Oper Frankfurt video stream on Arte