ZURICH--A sneering young poseur spurns the love of bookish innocent in the sticks, only to see the tables turn when she marries into the aristocracy of St. Petersburg. This, in a nutshell, is the action of Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin. In the adaptation he subtitled "lyric scenes," Tchaikovsky rewrote farce as sentimental tragedy.
The Opernhaus Zürich opened the season Sept. 24 with a new production by Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin and self-styled "gay Jewish kangaroo." Kosky's incongruous gift for self-mockery notwithstanding, he has been thriving among the mandarins of European straight and musical theater for the better part of two decades. Last summer, a triumphant Bayreuth debut with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg— by all accounts a revolutionary intellectual critique of Wagner and Wagnerism wrapped in an entertainment of surefire theatrical invention—bounced him to the very top of the heap.
Bezsmertna as Tatiana, Mattei as Onegin: rain falls, the curtain descends.
His Onegin (seen Sept. 27) shows no such ambitions, but it makes a lively show and intermittently a strikingly beautiful one. Bathed in the glow of Franck Evin's lighting, the decor by Rebecca Ringst and costumes by Klaus Bruns evoke the Age of Monet. But the long arc of the first two acts, played without a break on a unit set of rolling grass encircled by a border of elm trees, soon grows monotonous. All too seldom, a visual detail hits home, as when a blaze of birthday candles lends the mousy Tatiana the sad, pinched dignity of Downton Abbey's Lady Edith. The first radical shift of locale comes with the opening scene of the brief final act, set in Tatiana's palace in the capital. A second quickly follows: heading into the dénouement, stagehands in costume dismantle the architecture section by section within seconds. Resplendent in her scarlet ball gown, Tatiana is back in her meadow, pursued by a groveling Onegin in shirtsleeves. To ring down the curtain, rain starts falling in buckets.
For much of the evening, in ensembles and monologues alike, the singers march up to the edge of the stage, stand there, and sing straight out. Elsewhere, Kosky micromanages the action far, far beyond the point of any possible diminishing returns. There is tedious business with a jar or two of jam, endless circling around one or two chairs. To express hidden emotion, the women fidget while the men crawl on all fours. The choristers fling up arms and shake outstretched fingers like so many branches in a tempest. What luck for ensemble members who get to pipe up from the sidelines, unseen.
The Zurich company performs in an exquisitely scaled Baroque-revival house dating to 1891 that seats 1,100. Singers and many conductors, too, prize the hall for intimacy and transparency. In Onegin, Stanislav Kochanovsky instead prioritized crude, thumping energy, muddying orchestral textures, rushing and dragging the tempos. The brilliance of the polonaise at the top of the last act devolved into clatter. Only the occasional solo by the principal cello or the winds offered a moment's respite of songful tenderness.
By and large the women in the cast fell into much the same groove. Olga Bezsmertna's Tatiana interrupted paragraphs of shrill oversinging with a moment's pianissimo or an exquisitely managed decrescendo. As Tatiana's livelier, flirtatious sister Olga, Ksenia Dudnikova held fast to a healthy forte. More nuance where it counted for less came from the gracious Liliana Nikiteanu as Larina, the girls' widowed mother. As the nanny Filippyevna, the booming Margerita Nektrasova gave no quarter, mugging shamelessly in the bargain. As the elderly tutor Triquet, Martin Zysset only hinted at the charm of his birthday tribute to the young Tatiana.
The male principals did much better. Angular and tall, stalking the stage with a scowl and a gimlet eye above a crinkled nose, Peter Mattei lent the title character's music a smooth, dark radiance. As Lenksi, Onegin's friend, Pavol Breslik approached perfection, inhabiting his role not as an actor under intrusive direction but as a living human being. His phrasing was as supple as it felt sincere, enhanced by a vocal palette unfailingly attuned to the rapture or heartbreak of the moment. Lenski's aria before his duel with Onegin seldom fails to stand out as a highlight in performances of Onegin, it is true. But in this context, together with the somber duet for Lenski and Onegin that ensues, it was the core. Only Prince Gremin's declaration of love for his Tatiana, delivered by Christoph Fischesser in a velvety, purring bass, came close.