by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
The premise of Eugene Onegin is a familiar one: girl falls for bad boy, he rejects her, later he realizes that he loves her, but it’s too late… One might dismiss this as just another operatic melodrama about love lost, were it not for the deft social commentary of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (on whose most beloved story Onegin‘s libretto is based) and the magnificently eloquent music of Tchaikovsky. For this opera is all about the music, with both vocal and orchestral elements fully realized. The composer is not only a master of facile sung dialog (no labored moments or awkward transitions here), but his orchestration is also profoundly romantic and richly layered. What a pleasure to have transitions from scene to scene buoyed by Tchaikovsky’s majestic and evocative interludes, as they skillfully weave Pushkin’s story together and draw us into the world of the mid-19th Century Russian countryside.
Played out on a starkly appointed stage, where the intense, colorful lighting design of Christine Binder is the most important prop, Eugene Onegin is strongly centered in its character relationships. Despite the scale of the huge raked stage on which the performance takes place, Onegin has the distinctly intimate feel of a chamber opera. The focus of the action is on the four main characters. Olga and Tatiana are two daughters of the landed gentry and are typical young women of their time, sheltered and naive. The vivacious and beautiful Olga (Alisa Kolosova) has been promised since childhood to a neighbor boy, Vladimir Lensky (Charles Castronovo), who has grown into a romantic young poet constantly espousing his great love and devotion for his sweetheart, while she teases him with her saucy and flirtatious ways. Unlike her sister, Tatiana (Ana María Martínez) is bookish and painfully shy. She spends her days under the autumn branches lost in a romantic novel, dreaming of worlds far away from her sheltered rural life. Her first glimpse of the outside world comes in the form of Eugene Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecień), Lensky’s friend who has come to the country to care for a sick uncle. This young dandy makes no bones about the fact that he finds the country unsophisticated and boring. Nevertheless Tatiana is enchanted, and for his part, Onegin finds her pale complexion, fragility, and sense of distant longing appealing.
The “novel in verse” that forms the basis for this opera not only explores the amorous terrain between these two very different couples, but uses it both as societal and personal analogy. Onegin represents the new, more “Europeanized” Russian aristocracy of the mid-19th Century, the bored and decadent urban socialite contrasted with the traditional, rural landowning class represented by Olga and Tatiana. Lensky is a stand-in for Pushkin himself. The author loved the country, and frequently retired there to write for extended periods. Pushkin’s novel, and consequently Tchaikovsky’s opera boil these social contrasts down to the relationships between the poet and the popular girl, the bad boy and the innocent dreamer. To reflect this, the composer created breathtaking intertwining melodies that mirror the concurrent perspectives of the four main characters, resulting in some of the most beautiful quartets and duets in the opera pantheon. With Kwiecień under the weather the night we attended, tenor Castronovo took center stage with his very dramatic reading of Lensky, treating the audience to a spectacular vocal performance in classic Italian Bel Canto style. For Kwiecień’s part, the highly regarded Polish baritone was still able to fully inhabit Onegin, fleshing out both the charming and careless aspects of the unsympathetic protagonist. Martínez, in her first-ever portrayal of Tatiana performs brilliantly, and both she and Kolosova are in fantastic voice. Despite the circumstances, Kwiecień skillfully paced himself, and his tragic final duet with Martinez was heart wrenching and powerful.
As we have come to expect over the past several Lyric seasons, the principal vocalists are bolstered by a rock-solid supporting cast including Dmitry Belosselskiy in a stand-out performance as Tatiana’s eventual husband Prince Gremin, the incomparable Jill Grove as the nanny Filipyevna, and the honeyed tones of Katherine Goldner as Mme. Larina, the girls’ mother. The very fine Lyric Opera chorus takes on the task of creating the world of Eugene Onegin in a minimal stage environment and they do so splendidly, with the aid of marvelously detailed costumes and subtle set design by Michael Levine. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, for whom each brilliant performance has eclipsed the last this season, bring exceptional vibrancy to Tchaikovsky’s score, beneath the baton of Argentine conductor Alejo Pérez, in his premiere Lyric Opera appearance. Lyric’s Eugene Onegin is the consummate production with which to wrap up an exceedingly creative and artistically successful season. It is opera in its purest form: a backdrop for complex emotions and staggering musical virtuosity, impeccably and passionately performed; a journey into the past from which we most reluctantly must return.
(“Eugene Onegin,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 5 more performances only! Through March 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)
Eugene Onegin production photo by Todd Rosenberg.