Whether or not you’re familiar with Alexander Pushkin’s acclaimed poetic novel on which the opera is based and takes much of its lyrical inspiration, you likely know the story of Eugene Onegin already. Or at least one that’s very close to it. For it’s essentially the Marianne half of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen set to music, with a tragic and unnecessary duel thrown in. And this production, like the film version of the Austen, is blessed with great acting and standout performances galore, even in the smaller roles. You want to get out to the Lyric as soon as you can to see this production, which is gloriously performed in Russian.
Sisters Tatiana and Olga live with their widowed mother in the countryside, in a remote village with mostly Russian peasants and a few people of genteel birth scattered nearby. The very first scene involves their mother, Mme Larina, the excellent Katharine Goeldner, commiserating with her servant and friend Nanny Filipyevna, the superb Jill Grove, about how it’s so wonderful that she gave up notions of romance and settled down to “routine” with her husband. Because routine brings contentment and love leads to unhappiness and ruin. It is so dour that you almost have to restrain yourself from laughing at this point. But the women are so real and fabulous and act their parts so well that you are drawn in despite the overwrought foreshadowing of the lyrics. And honestly, a show that starts with peasant women peeling potatoes on stage while singing about how life is disappointing and you need to lower your expectations is one that has mostly stolen my heart. Ah, Russia.
It is important to note that during the entire first act the stage is littered with leaves, with various clear spots where the action takes place. This is a gorgeous way to create the pastoral effect and add color on a largely bare white box.
We learn from Olga, herself, that she is vivacious and flirtatious and believes in having fun and living life while her sister, Tatiana, reads books that make her sad. Tatiana, who is supposed to be seventeen at the beginning of this opera, could not be more of the goth teen writing bad poetry in her bedroom if she tried. She literally says, “no one understands me” in one of her arias. Hard not to laugh here again because all she needs is a poster of the Cure on her bedroom wall and she’s ready to roll.
Both Alisa Kolosova as Olga and Ana Maria Martinez as Tatiana could not be more splendid in their parts. The casting of this opera, with one glaring exception, is utterly superb. And the fact that it starts this strong with four amazingly talented women on stage backed by the Lyric’s outstanding chorus makes stomaching this trite story so much easier.
Because while the story might be an old chestnut, Tchaikovsky’s music is as lovely as you can expect. Yet, he’s writing for the orchestra more so than the singers. Their musical lines are often quite static, while the embellishments are done by the orchestra. The arias are not simple exactly, but they are often placed oddly in the voices of the singers and there aren’t the pyrotechnics you often hear in operatic roles. This style works well with the endless navel-gazing of this opera. Because it’s all about emotions and manners and restraint, and how it’s sung backs that up.
The other main motifs are typically Russian romance as well: 1) romanticizing the pastoral 2) longing for days gone by 3) inner torment based on societal expectations vs. romantic notions vs. reality. It’s genteel teen angst that never quite grows up. When Onegin sings “ennui pursues me” that’s how you feel about the story. But not about the music, costumes, staging, lighting or performances, they are all glorious. See the Lyric’s teaser film here.
Enter the single men, “generally supposed to be in want of a wife.” Vladimir Lensky, the local poet, is in love with Olga, and brings his friend from the city, Eugene Onegin, over to visit with him. There is supposed to be a contrast between the two, the overtly emotional and youthful Lensky played here by the astonishing Charles Castronovo and the polished and urbane Onegin, Mariusz Kweicien.
While Pushkin’s poem gives us a great deal of backstory on Onegin and how he’s become vain and empty, and how he formed his friendship with Lensky, the opera does not. We are cued only by the reactions of the other characters to him. Onegin needs to drop into the midst of the countryfolk like a bomb of charisma and novelty. We have to see something special in him for the rest of this opera to make sense, and alas, while he sings very well, Kweicien has zero charisma. He’s not even a convincing bored aristocrat. He seems angry, if anything, and even that so slightly, except for one moment when it looks like he wants to hit Tatiana with his cane, that he’s utterly forgettable.
You have no idea why anyone would bother to talk to him twice, let alone, as Tatiana does, fall in love at first meeting – which happens offstage during a walk we don’t see. She’s been set up as a romantic dreamer, so the best you can hope for in this production is that her attachment to Onegin is purely based on her romantic notions. That’s all you get from Kweicien who is static throughout except for the way that he keeps singing much of his part to the conductor in the pit, which is distracting. And that’s not the original Pushkin text at all, where Onegin is a classic Byronic hero. His ennui should be dashing, mysterious and seem exciting, and the libretto supports an interpretation much closer to the original Pushkin. Kweicien’s Onegin is like a gigantic foil for every other character set at the heart of this opera. Fortunately, they are all so outstanding that the audience is fine with that. It actually sort of works. And, as I said, Kweicien has a very fine voice, so there’s nothing wrong with his singing, it’s lovely. He’s just a negative space as a character while everyone else is acting up a storm. Perhaps with a different cast, he’d stand out more. He doesn’t in this production.
So the inevitable happens and Tatiana falls for Onegin. She sits in her bedroom, denoted by a bare spot on the stage with minimal props, surrounded by the leaves. She asks her Nanny to tell her a story about the old days – at which point Nanny tells her a horror of a tale about her own marriage at 13, when she’s dragged off to church where they “undo her maiden’s braid” and “sent me off to live with strangers.” And Tatiana cuts her off to moon about young love where she’ll “drain the poisoned cup of passion and surrender to my dreams.” Really never a good idea. Grove and Martinez are unbelievably great together, and when you think it can’t get better Martinez holds the stage on her own for nearly a quarter of an hour doing the absolutely incredible “letter scene” some of which she does while lying on the floor. People who had been listening raptly to her broke out into thunderous applause when she finished.
The village women come out and sing a pastoral song, while they sweep the leaves back to the perimeter of the stage. This is lovely and entertaining. Onegin comes out and returns Tatiana’s letter. Tells her she’d be the girl he’d pick if he was the marrying kind, and tells her to be more careful in the future lest someone dishonor her. Kweicien sings it well with almost no expression. You don’t see why Tatiana loves him.
Inside the bare space on the stage mismatched chairs are set and it becomes the Larin’s ballroom several months later at Tatiana’s name day celebration. The country fashion ballgowns are so fabulously tragic here, I feel the need to mention them. The costume design is a work of diabolical genius. Onegin is bored, so he decides to flirt with Olga to annoy Lensky for dragging him to the party. The local French tutor sings one of the best things in this opera. It’s a trite little folkish ballad Tchaikovsky clearly wrote as a joke, a hymn to Tatiana’s beauty and sing in rhyming French, when the rest of the opera is in Russian. It’s exactly what some little country tutor would write and is brilliant. It is also beautifully performed by Keith Jameson.
Onegin’s flirtation with Olga goes too far, and Lensky breaks up with the girl he’s loved his whole life and challenges Onegin to a duel, which because of the strict honor code of the era, Onegin accepts.
We are then treated to one of the most sublime things in this opera. The stage is now bare. A white box, barely lit with blue light. Lensky and his second appear in silhouette against the pre-dawn light. Lensky sings his gorgeous area on this bare stage with his second in the background. And the real duel in this opera becomes apparent, and that is which singer is the most amazing Martinez or Castronovo. When he finished his aria, the house absolutely erupted with cheers and applause and he so completely deserved it. It was glorious.
Onegin arrives and they sing about how they really don’t want to duel, but then they do and Onegin kills Lensky. This is all done in silhouette with the seconds in the background, one tall and one short. As Lensky dies, Onegin leans over his body as the sun comes up. It is exceptionally beautiful with perfect lighting and exceptional attention to detail in the direction. Everybody is superb here. It is minimalist and tragic and beautiful.
Then there’s a masterful scene change to Act Three, where liveried footmen bring a basin where Onegin with a complete lack of emotion, washes his hands of Lensky. They then change Onegin’s clothes on stage from his dueling ensemble to evening dress, while they set the stage for a ball. The two ball scenes are contrasted through the simple use of chairs. The country dance features mixed and matched chairs surrounding the dance floor and the city one, beautifully matched ones.
Act three begins years later after Onegin returns to St. Petersburg after years of aimless wandering. He attends a party at the home of his kinsman, Prince Germin. Onegin continues to be bored with life and is bored by the party. Until he sees Tatiana there. She is now grown up and sophisticated in a gorgeous gown and socializing with the sophisticated city people. Prince Germin, played by the wonderful Dmitry Belosselskiy, sings his aria about how much he loves and adores his wife. As he does so Onegin realizes he, too, is in love with Tatiana. He is presented to her and after a few polite words, she has her husband take her home.
Later, we see a second letter scene, where she is reading one Onegin has sent to her. He arrives and professes his love in person, and we see a little emotion out of him at last, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Tatiana wonders if he only wants her now because she’s come up in the world and is forbidden to him. She admits she still loves him but won’t allow him to ruin her and he is left to a life of bitterness and regret. How very Russian.
There were a couple of unpleasant moments in this exchange where it looked like Onegin was going to refuse to let her leave, and not in a good way. It looked as if it would turn violent at any minute, but it didn’t go there and we were just left with Onegin stuck in the hole he’d dug for himself by being awful and Tatiana not having learned anything or having grown up much other than to be honorable and sticking by her commitments. She didn’t really wise up to Onegin. And not word one about the way he’d ruined her sister’s life, either, and killed his friend -but that’s not in the Pushkin source, either.
So you wind up with two selfish people who are deeply unhappy and it’s quite satisfying because they deserve it. And you’ve been treated to several hours of glorious singing and superb orchestration, adeptly led by conductor Alejo Perez.
Honestly, this entire production is an absolute pleasure. It’s wonderfully sung, beautifully acted and completely gorgeous to look at. It’s playing from now through March 20th. Tickets are available at the Lyric Opera’s website.
Photography by Todd Rosenberg.