Germany Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper / James Gaffigan (conductor). Schillertheater, Berlin, 15.12.2023. (MB)
Director – Barrie Kosky
Revival director – Werner Sauer
Set designs – Rebecca Ringst
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting – Franck Evin
Dramaturgy – Simon Berger
Chorus director – David Cavelius
Eugene Onegin – Günter Papendell
Tatiana – Ruzan Mantashyan
Olga – Deniz Uzun
Lensky – Gerard Schneider
Mme Larina – Stefanie Schaefer
Prince Gremin – Tijl Faveyts
Filipievna – Margarita Nekrasova
M. Triquet – Christoph Späth
Zaretsky – Ferhat Baday
Captain – Jan-Frank Süße
Guillot – Alexander Kohl
I first saw Barrie Kosky’s Eugene Onegin, premiered in 2016, in 2019 (review here), a few months before the theatres closed. Then it was at the Komische Oper’s permanent home on Behrenstrasse. Now, the building having closed for several years for renovation, this latest revival may be seen across town in Charlottenburg’s Schillertheater, conducted by the company’s new music director James Gaffigan. The cast is a mix of old and new, Günter Papendell, Stefanie Schaefer, Tijl Faveyts, and Margarita Nekrasova survivors from 2019, the rest new (at least to me).
Memory, though, is a strange thing; or rather, ‘memories’ are, since even one’s own will come into conflict with one another. Although I remembered liking what I saw, what I saw on this occasion did not always correspond to my recollections, which may indeed have been of other productions, real or imagined. Much the same might be said of what unfolds here (in many dramas, no doubt, yet it seems or seemed more than usually germane here). For there are certainly misunderstandings, missed opportunities, ‘bad timing’, and the rest in the relationships, not only Onegin and Tatiana’s, of Eugene Onegin. That of Tatiana and Prince Gremin may be an exception; yet if so, it is dependent on the failures of another. It is, in any case, hardly the central relationship; it serves as a contrast to what might have been, an antidote of reality to fantasy. Kosky’s setting the entire action in the same place, with one partial exception, brings with it some loss, not least in the inevitably lesser contrast between public and private, whose portrayal therefore becomes still more a matter for the orchestra. Yet its dramaturgical function here also brings with it considerable gain, anchoring character’s differing understandings, memories, and decisions in Rebecca Ringst’s almost pastoral, outdoor setting that yet takes in threatening woods behind. (It is not as if the libretto suddenly vanishes when all stage directions are not adhered to literally.) Although real enough – it is not abstract – it imparts something of a dream-like quality, in which not only memories but, at least as important, objects bind everything together.
Jam and jam-jars, for instance: when the opera opens, Mme Larina and the nurse Filipievna are making jam, readily eaten by Tatiana and Olga. When Tatiana sends her letter to Onegin, it is inside a jar sent as a gift. And so on, until the close, when it is there in what seems to be the same place: where it all (tragically?) began. There is something would-be bacchanalian to the ball scene, when it takes place outdoors. This, one feels, is as far away from civilisation as these characters, this society, dare travel. And, of course, it leads to the frozen, pointless misery of the duel scene. Onegin, moreover, does not face the decentring he sometimes can. There is plenty of and for Tatiana too, but we feel – and, I think, have suggested to us – more of his miserable wandering, his downward spiral than usual. Helplessly drunk when he arrives for the duel, he shows that it is already too late for him, let alone for Lensky. His early stiffness is probably a self-defence mechanism; at any rate, we feel its relationship to what is to come. All the while, subtle transformations in Franck Evin’s lighting aid the transformations, both gradual and sudden, in the drama itself. And when a room in Gremin’s palace appears, for the first St Petersburg scene, Onegin by now a sad, destroyed outsider, it is only to be dismantled onstage shortly after, in preparation for the ’return’ to a past which may or may not have ‘actually’ existed for the final scene.
Kosky’s conception remains the guiding one. The Komische Oper’s new music director, James Gaffigan, conducting his first production in the role, would appear to have been presented with certain challenges, not least among them caesuras when all stops, hearts included, all falls silent. On this, the first night of Werner Sauer’s revival, Gaffigan integrated these and other ‘givens’ to excellent effect. His reading, like Kosky’s, seemed to gain pace and depth as the evening progressed, the orchestra responding with eagerness to the vision with which it was presented. Almost chamber-like in scale to begin with, its Petersburg grandeur was undeniable, both in itself and in contrast. Choral contributions were likewise as well acted (and blocked) as sung.
Papendell’s Onegin follows and, to an extent, leads that trajectory too. It was a compelling portrayal in 2019 and is in 2023, his brokenness in the third act deeply moving. Ruzan Mantashyan travelled on a different, related journey as Tatiana, convincingly the shy, bookish girl at the outset, very much a woman at the close, albeit one struggling to keep herself in one piece. This she accomplished through musical and gestural means alike — as well as fine costuming (Klaus Bruns) and make-up. If I sometimes wished Gerard Schneider would adopt a less Verdian approach as Lensky, his was an undoubtedly committed performance, greatly superior to what I had heard from another singer four years ago. Deniz Uzun’s extravert Olga was a joy — and a telling contrast with her more complicated sister. Faveyts and Nekrasova at least matched memories of their excellent portrayals last time around: not a bad summary of the evening as a whole. The company may be on the move physically, but not aesthetically, whether that be in direction or quality