Festival Opera

Eugene Onegin

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

WHEN asked about his hit production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for Komische Oper Berlin, where he has been artistic director since 2012, Barrie Kosky never fails to mention the stage direction that the women are making jam in the garden of the country house where the drama unfolds in the opening scene. And does he ever run brilliantly with that little cue! Tatyana (a sensational performance by Asmik Grigorian) shows no interest in the symbolic jam, until Onegin hands her a jar he has been tasting, and that same jar becomes the container of both letters the pair write that are central to the story.

It is a crucial prop in a staging full of exciting details as well as being sumptuously, if quite conceptually simply, staged, although with a wonderfully flamboyant set change later on. The naturalistic design is clever and beautiful, but the focus is always on the characters – those of Olga (Karolina Gumos) and her sister established as swiftly as the fetid, charged atmosphere of their community, and the real natures of both Onegin (Gunter Papendell) and Lensky (Oleksiy Palchykov) revealing themselves more slowly. In Kosky’s version Olga’s fiancé is indeed a jealous guy, and prone to lash out, while the title character of Pushkin’s fable is rarely afforded such a sympathetic portrayal as he is allowed in this telling.

For all that, and with a uniform high standard of vocal performances across the cast, including bass Dmitri Ivashchenko’s later appearance as Gremin and a lovely, warm Filipyevna the nurse from Margarita Nekrasova, on the opening night of this short Festival run it was Grigorian who compelled attention every moment she was onstage. Her anguished version of the Letter Song – some of the most memorable moments sung with her back to the audience, her forearms twisting in torment – was in a class of its own, and her overall encapsulation of Tatyana’s development from bookish girl to womanhood mesmeric.

As well as a very fine acting chorus, the German company has brought a crack orchestra, under new music director Ainars Rubikis, to the Festival Theatre pit, with the wind soloists particularly superb. This production is as good as opera gets.