Fine Season Opener: Eugene Onegin at Zurich Opera

26/09/2017

Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists and Chorus of Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Stanislav Kochanovsky (conductor), Zurich Opera 24.9.2017. (JR)

jewgeni_onegin_193_2017_c_monika_rittershaus

Cast:

Larina – Liliana Nikiteanu
Tatjana – Olga Bezsmertna
Olga – Ksenia Dudnikova
Filipjewna (nanny) – Margerita Nekrasova
Eugene Onegin – Peter Mattei
Lenski – Pavol Breslik
Count Gremin – Christoph Fischesser
Triquet – Martuin Zysset
A Captain/Saretzki – Stanislav Vorobyov
Singer – Tae-Jin Park

Production:

Staging – Barrie Kosky
Direction – Jan Essinger
Sets – Rebecca Ringst
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus Master: Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Simon Berger and Beate Breidenbach

Zurich’s 2017/2018 opera season has commenced auspiciously with a fine new production (shared with the Komische Oper Berlin) of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular Eugene Onegin. It is an opera which is easy on the ear and eye, the plot is simple if a mite absurd (two best friends quickly agreeing to a duel over some flirtation) and not over-long (although the interval after an hour and three quarters could perhaps come sooner).

Kosky places this production in a timeless zone and place; it can hardly be brought right up to date as satisfaction duels seem, inexplicably, to have gone out of fashion. Tatjana’s letter song nowadays would have to be about an e-mail or SMS. Kosky explains his Russian grandfather listened to a great deal of Tchaikovsky, and Kosky inherited his record collection; surprisingly, therefore, this is the first Tchaikovsky he has produced. Kosky paints Onegin as a lonely, bored man, perhaps confused by his sexuality; Tchaikovsky married one of his students whilst writing the opera. Onegin gruffly spurns Tatjana’s advances when they meet in the countryside, only to express his love when Tatjana, sporting a sumptuous red velvet dress, has married Count Gremin, thereby acquiring both wealth and status. Peter Mattei, the Swedish baritone, acts this role supremely.

As to the sets: you had to like trees. Perhaps green is the new black, as my friend said. They are, it has to be said, superb trees; they look real, of different species, and there are a lot of them. It reminded me of the Teletubbies’ set. The trees are on stage for all three acts, which causes difficulty when interior scenes are normally called for. The ball scene is performed as a break-out into the garden for fresh air (presumably cigarettes could be smoked indoors then), Tatjana writes her letter not in her bedroom but on the lawn, and elements of Gremin’s palace are quickly erected (and dismantled) in front of the trees for the final denouement, in the pouring rain. Kosky received some curtain call boos, so I can only imagine that some traditionalists missed some Russian-ness and glitter.

Peter Mattei’s rich baritone might be said by some to be too lyrical for the part, but he sang it beautifully, and his acting was exemplary: he really looked the part. Breslik on the other hand never looked or sounded very convincing, even though the notes were all there. Olga Bezsmertna was a new name to me, a member of Vienna’s ensemble since 2012; she is clearly starting to make waves. She has a crisp, crystalline soprano, impeccable intonation, and of course native Russian diction – I missed perhaps some acting skills and more richness of tone. She fidgeted non-stop through the letter scene, which I found distracting – presumably Kosky’s doing. Ksenia Dudnikova, a mezzo from Uzbekistan, had a warm lower register and was full of charm. Almost stealing the show was the nanny, Margerita Nekrasova: a deep mezzo with enormous volume, over-shadowing – in every sense – Nikiteanu’s Larina. It was a joy to listen to the Russian language sung by native singers, with that Slavic edge, which non-Russians mostly cannot attain.

Christoph Fischesser as a not-so-old Count Gremin revelled, as we did, in the low notes of his aria. Martin Zysset, a light local tenor, sang his one aria with distinction. Minor roles were taken competently.

I was much taken by the energetic yet sensitive conductor, of whom I had also not heard: Stanislav Kochanovsky, from St. Petersburg. He appears to be a regular at the Mariinsky and he is now becoming known in Europe, though only in Russian repertoire so far. The orchestra warmed to him, played superbly, especially principal horn, clarinet and oboe. He also coaxed some silken playing from the strings and some Slavic beefiness from the brass.

The chorus relished their contributions, particularly the “Vaynu, vaynu” chorus, sung lustily front stage. There were occasional lighting problems, as spotlights were used (presumably to cut out the sight of those trees), with parts of singers’ heads cut off into the shadows.

There was a new pre-performance recorded announcement: patrons were requested not only to switch off their mobile phones but also (hooray) to refrain from even looking at their illuminated screens (or of course texting) during the performance. Concert managers would be wise to follow the opera house’s example.

John Rhodes

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