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Eugene Onegin review at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘Barrie Kosky gets to the heart of the characters’

Günter Papendell and Asmik Grigorian in Eugene Onegin at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Ryan Buchanan Günter Papendell and Asmik Grigorian in Eugene Onegin at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Ryan Buchanan
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By Barrie Kosky’s standards, his take on Tchaikovsky’s downbeat classic is a restrained affair. It premiered in 2016 at the Komische Oper Berlin, where Kosky is artistic director, and its focus is on getting to the heart of the characters. If elements of the production are showy, that’s only to support this central desire.

A thick bed of shaggy grass droops off the front of the stage. There’s a line of trees at the back – a glade where all the action takes place.

From the moment we hear the first voices sung from off stage, there’s a sense that Kosky is pushing an artificial theatrical form on to characters who are trying to break out of it and be real.

When Tatyana is alone on stage, she slips in and out of the edges of her spotlight. She doesn’t care about the lighting design: she’s in love. She even sings one aria with her back turned to us. It’s as if Tatyana and Onegin just want to be people, but have to be confined to an opera instead.

Those trees – Rebecca Ringst’s design – loom eerily as a backdrop. At points, huge crowds of people emerge through the thicket, gloomily lit, like some kind of zombie apocalypse. There’s also a revolve that Kosky hasn’t found anything interesting to do with.

What makes the production so beautiful and striking is Franck Evin’s lighting. There’s so much darkness in it. Often we’ve just a white spot on Tatyana and the rest of the stage remains pitch black.

The lighting and the whole production play to extremes. The stage is either full with ensemble or empty. The light is bright white or darkness. Under Ainars Rubikis, the music swells suddenly to fortissimo and simmers down to its default quiet lyricism just as quickly.

But that’s exactly what the story is. One moment Tatyana isn’t in love and the next, love consumes her. Same for Onegin. As with the piece, so the production: there is no middle ground.

Lithunanian soprano Asmik Grigorian is responsible for all the most moving scenes. Although she has no trouble filling the Festival Theatre with raw emotion, she’s a Tatyana who pulls herself inward. At one point she completely hides her face behind a book. Her voice is flawless, but it’s her acting that seals the deal.

Her maturation in Act III comes as a surprise. Her slightly supercilious poise as she stands over Onegin prostrate and distraught on the grass – is that pity, or just a sneer? – is quite a sight. And fair enough: from the moment Günter Papendell’s Onegin swaggers on in Act I he comes across as a bit of an arse.

In a memorable moment halfway through Act III, the entirety of Prince Gremin’s palace – the only other bit of set – is deconstructed and taken away while Onegin mopes in the middle. It’s like Onegin wills it away, like he’s hampered by the sudden staged opulence of the production. All he wants to do is feel his feelings in peace.

A gorgeous aria from Oleksiy Palchykov as Lensky – who looks so innocent, happy just to be in love with Olga until Onegin comes along and ruins it all – is a bonus in a production which, while visually stunning, never lets looks get in the way of pure, raw feeling.

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UK premiere of Barrie Kosky’s take on the Tchaikovsky classic is all about character and emotion