Peter Konwitschny’s “Eugene Onegin” pushes grand opera’s envelope into living, organic theater by demolishing the fourth wall.
The stage — a black box lined with peeling mirrors and strewn with folding chairs — houses a repressed, closed community, unified in its melancholia and penchant for drinking. Unlike her party-girl sister Olga, Tatyana finds refuge among piles of books on the lip of the stage. Visiting the country estate, Lensky, Olga’s fiance, introduces worldly Onegin. For the first time in her young life, Tatyana is smitten. In the night, she pours out her emotions in a letter, here written on a discarded piece of paper that wrapped a bottle of champagne produced from Onegin’s coat pocket. Tatyana leaves her world, entering the audience on a runway encircling the orchestra pit, sharing her innermost thoughts and seeking approval for her words.
Thus ensues a heartbreaking, downward spiral of humiliation. Returning the unrequited letter, Onegin, drunk, is kept vertical by two whores who chortle over its contents. French fop Triquet (over-rouged and sporting stone martens) snatches the crumpled letter for all to see at Tatyana’s name-day fete and leaves it to mix with the trash on the ground. And in a hot-headed misunderstanding over Olga, Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel.
Was it possible for Tchaikovsky, a gay man, to illustrate a loving relationship between two men without homoerotic undercurrents? Konwitschny endows sophisticated, jaded Onegin with a sexual magnetism so palpable that every character is drawn to him (Triquet manages to rub Onegin’s ass while ostensibly serenading Tatyana). A prolonged hug makes it stunningly clear that Onegin and Lensky wish to forget their differences. But society demands a death: Scores of townsmen surround the two until we see nothing but a huddle of dark coats when a shot rings out. Lensky’s body drops from the circle. The music flows into the famous Polonaise.
Instead of a ballet divertissement, Konwitschny offers powerful imagery: Onegin vents a primal scream, tries to revive Lensky, reads the diary pressed into his hand in Lensky’s last moments and dances frenetically with the corpse.
Onegin leaves the claustrophobic society and rushes into the audience. By the time, years later, Tatyana has married old Prince Gremin, the drama is so ensconced in reality that it never returns to the stage. The couple and their retinue occupy four of the theater’s boxes and, from his privileged perch, Gremin sings his great aria, publicly explaining at Onegin’s expense how Tatyana’s devotion has transformed his life.
When Onegin confesses his love for Tatyana, she pulls the letter from the sleeve of her gown and, rebuffing him, laughs maniacally as she tears it to shreds. The chilling final moments, played with house lights up, portend cataclysmic ends for all.
Pavol Remenar is a stunning Onegin. Aside from his plumy, plangent baritone, his intense eyes, thick golden mane, trim beard and muscular body perfectly justify why everyone — female or male — falls under the spell of his charisma and ripe sexual allure. Remenar literally throws himself into the part with an unbridled physicality that borders on dangerous.
Creamy-voiced Natalia Ushakova makes Tatyana so real it is difficult to believe that the introverted, romantic child of act one (magically making eye contact with everyone in the auditorium during the letter scene) becomes the proud, defiant (but ultimately psychotic) noblewoman of act two.
A superb Lensky, Tomas Juhas gives a soaring account of what may be the most beautiful aria ever written. Terezia Kruzliakova’s ditzy Olga dazzles with her earthy mezzo.
Ultimately, it’s Konwitschny’s show. The intimacy and urgency he conjures simply cannot be described: Opera has never been so literally in-your-face.