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Imagine Tchaikovsky’s “lyric scenes” as a dream or flashback, seen through the imagination of any of its characters. Yes, it might work. But what about Onegin as a diary of emancipation, in which the female characters control their destiny and the men are boors or wimps? That’s exactly how Onegin is handled in the Salzburg festival’s new production, and no, I didn’t groan. I found it fascinating.

If conceptual productions fail, it’s usually because the ideas aren’t properly translated to the stage or there are too many of them. The director ends up directing the concept, not the singers – or the scenario is simply unmusical. None of these is true of the Salzburg Onegin.

Each scene has been reimagined in a way that trumps convention.
It’s a deliberately unsettling approach, but it gets you thinking. The characters are so true-to-life and so intimately related, you can’t help believing in them.

The director is Andrea Breth, resident at Vienna’s Burgtheater and very much a phenomenon of German-speaking Europe, where Regietheater (director’s theatre) is king. Her slant on classic texts would be dismissed as “Eurotrash” in the UK and US, but here she is, in harness with the ever-openminded Daniel Barenboim, producing one of the most thought-provoking and, yes, entertaining performances of this opera I have seen.

It helps that Salzburg has assembled a dream cast – few of them Russian, incidentally – and that Barenboim draws phrasing and textures from the Vienna Philharmonic that make you fall in love with the score all over again. This Onegin may not have the “made in Russia” tag that St Petersburg’s Mariinsky ensemble brings on its western tours, but it is much more theatrically aware. That carries its own authenticity.

The female characters are very much in control in Breth’s 1970s scenario, location unspecified. We get a whiff of this in a bizarre opening scene: male workers submissively queue up to have their heads shaved by Madame Larina, resplendent in curlers. A scatty, short-skirted 50 going on 20, she is one of the production’s most original creations.

Olga is very much her mother’s daughter, a party girl who takes the sexual initiative with Lensky and won’t be gutted by his loss. Even Filipevna, the old nurse from a less liberated age, has an outsize role. And in spite of Onegin’s rebuffs in acts one and two, Tatiana does not crumble. It’s Onegin who, as the weaker character, is buffeted around the room in their act three denouement, entirely at the mercy of his miserable fate.

Fanciful? You could be forgiven for thinking so, given that the floor in the act two party scene is awash – probably with booze, judging by the mood of inertia. And the only
person visible for most of the Polonaise is a spiv-like waiter practising what can only be described as a Michael Jackson routine.

But Breth and her designers – Martin Zehetgruber, Silke Willrett and Marc Weeger – make the best use of the gargantuan Festspielhaus stage since Herbert Wernicke’s Boris. Each scene is kept cleanly focused within a panelled or mirrored interior while hay is made with the turntable.

Anna Samuil may not be the most liberated of actresses, but her Tatiana more than fills Breth’s demands, not least in her typewritten letter scene. Peter Mattei is a modern alpha male Onegin, meltingly sung, with the heart of a playboy. Joseph Kaiser is the substantial, spirited Lenksy, Ryland Davies a scene-stealing Triquet and Ekaterina Gubanova a rich-voiced Olga. Ferruccio Furlanetto brings the house down with Gremin’s aria.

Sunday’s show, with two intervals, lasted nearly four hours, but it was worth every minute.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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