Although Tchaikovsky called his 1879 opera Eugene Onegin after the deeply-flawed hero of Alexander Pushkin’s verse-novel which inspired it, the composer seems to have been more devoted to the story’s heroine, Tatyana. Writing to his younger brother while working on the opera, Tchaikovsky revealed his partiality: ‘I was completely buried in my composition and had grown so close to the character of Tatyana that she and all around her started to seem real to me…I loved Tatyana and was terribly angry with Onegin, whom I saw as simply cold and heartless’.
Barrie Kosky’s lauded 2016 production for Komische Oper Berlin, appearing in Edinburgh this year as part of the International Festival, is the first staging I’ve seen which has Tatyana, rather than Onegin, at its heart—she barely leaves the stage in the first two acts. And what a Tatyana Kosky has found in Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, whose virtuoso performance left little doubt as to why she was named female singer of the year in this year’s International Opera Awards.
Surprisingly for a production originating from Berlin, Kosky’s staging is utterly conventional. This isn’t a modernised update laden down with contemporary references. There are no bizarre or shocking costumes. Instead, the stage is covered with lush green grass and tall trees; a pastoral scene (beautifully designed by Rebecca Ringst) that perfectly encapsulates an idealised version of a rural Russian woodland garden.
Pushkin’s original story takes place across a number of different settings, but in Kosky’s production, nearly everything happens amidst the garden or just out of sight in the woodland. The garden is where Tatyana and Onegin meet for the first time and where Tatyana falls in feverish love with the worldweary dandy. It’s where Onegin callously rebuffs his would-be wooer; where he then betrays his best friend, Lensky (Oleksiy Palchykov), by outrageously flirting with Lensky’s beloved Olga, Tatyana’s sister; and where he fatally shoots Lensky in a duel. These same trees bear witness, in the final scene—a marked departure from the drawing-room denouement of Pushkin’s verse-novel—to Onegin’s rebuffing by a glamorous, grown up and married Tatyana years later.
In addition to the visual appeal and superb singing, I appreciated the youthfulness of the two female leads. Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is an opera about the cataclysmic emotions of youth and in a number of previous productions I’ve seen, Tatyana comes across as a thirty-something playing at being a teenage dreamer. Grigorian is a thirty-something, but she has crafted a convincing performance of an emotional, uncertain and impressionable young girl falling headlong in love for the first time.
But as much as Kosky’s production is an admirable, entertaining interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera, for me the enduring problem with this work remains that the opera always lacks in comparison with Pushkin’s vividly brilliant original.
Pushkin’s Onegin encompasses so much more than the disappointed romantic hopes of Tatyana and Onegin. It does have that, of course, but it also features a rich descriptive analysis and witty satire of 1820’s Russian society across all classes. It’s funny, ironic, sarcastic, as well as romantic; qualities which seem to have been eviscerated in Tchaikovsky’s tight focus on the emotional essence of Pushkin’s story. So, while the combined talents of Kosky and Grigorian have produced a sublime interpretation of this romantic tragedy—a tragedy in which there are no heroes or villains, merely flawed human beings making devastating mistakes—I’m not sure whether any production of this opera can truly better the magic of Pushkin’s extraordinary text.
Eugene Onegin was on at Edinburgh International Festival from 15th-17th August. More info and tickets here.