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The heroine is where the heart is: Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin

March 20, 2012

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    March 20, 2012
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    Opera Carolina News

The heroine is where the heart is: Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin

Writing to Tchaikovsky to congratulate him on the premiere of his opera, Eugene Onegin, the novelist Turgenev could not resist adding "but what a libretto!"—and so it has been ever since.

This is the risk incurred when setting a work that is the wellspring of Russian literature, as Pushkin's novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin, is generally held to be. But surely Tchaikovsky can be forgiven for writing what is, after all, a great opera. His Eugene Onegin may substitute fate for insight, and yearning for wisdom, but the music has a freshness and a refined melancholy all its own; it also has a naturalness rare in opera.

Something in Tchaikovsky's passionate sincerity of approach to his characters convinces us that we know them as we know ourselves.

Eugene Onegin is also a beautifully proportioned work—a trait seldom ascribed to Tchaikovsky—which conceals great artistry under the guise of immediacy. An example would be the ingenious mirroring of the encounters between Tatyana and Onegin in acts one and three—it is our half-conscious recognition of the music that gives the last act its sweep, though this is something we do not so much realize as feel. Add to this the pastoral choruses of the opening, the glittering ballroom dance music in acts two and three, the indelible melodies—Lensky's aria was even popularly reincarnated as a tango—the marvelous orchestration, and one of the few three-dimensional heroines in opera, and its stature as a masterpiece becomes clear.

I have sometimes thought that the debate concerning Pushkin's verse versus Tchaikovsky's opera might be short-circuited if the opera were simply re-titled "Tatyana," for the heroine is where Tchaikovsky's heart is, and it is equally apparent that he prefers the character Lensky to Eugene Onegin himself. In Pushkin, Onegin's affectation of a Byronic hauteur is wittily anatomized, but in Tchaikovsky's opera it is undergone by the heroine as she is spurned. In Tchaikovsky, Onegin is initially as little understood as any cruel beloved; he is as incomprehensible as the heartless are to the tender heart.

Opera Carolina's production of Eugene Onegin is its first foray into the field of Russian opera, and as such, it is a great success. Dina Kuznetsova's Tatyana, though by no means infallibly acted or directed, is never-the-less a great performance. Her letter scene in act one alone is worth the admission, and she surpasses this in act three, where her character grows in moral splendor before our eyes.

Vasily Ladyuk's Onegin does not match this standard—though his voice is beautiful—presently he lacks the body language which would convey Onegin's languor and aristocratic aloofness.

Yeghishe Manucharyan was a fine Lensky, who sang his famous act-two aria with sweetness, security, and vulnerability rather than lugubriousness. Kristopher Irmiter, likewise, illumined the role of Prince Gremin, and was roundly applauded for making something vivid and humane from this small part.

Dawn Pierce, as Olga, Tatyana's flighty sister, was excessively arch, and John Kaneklides—though a talented singer—over-sauced his role as the effete Monsieur Triquet. Another miscalculation was in the opening duet between Madame Larina (Martha Bartz) and Filipevna (Victoria Livengood) which is a wistful reflection on the transience of things, not a dirge.

The stage direction by Brian Deedrick had one brilliant moment—the transition between act two and act three, which cleverly and poignantly synopsized Onegin's years in a moral wilderness to the strains of Tchaikovsky's extroverted polonaise. There was otherwise too much operatic acting, as opposed to acting. Dina Kuznetsova was wonderful in her role except when she was required to twirl with joy during the letter scene, which temporarily made an incongruous impression, and in defense of Dawn Pierce's Olga, it must added that she was required to act like a giddy child, not a lively young lady.

How much better a performance would this Onegin have been if the singers were not subjected to a series of movement clichés moribund since the time of silent film. Surely Tatyana and Olga can undergo the transports of love without using the gestures of Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish.

Onegin is one of the few operas that might be done in the seemingly artless manner of Jean Renoir in A Day in the Country or The Rules of the Game, and be more effective for it.

The stage sets, by Peter Dean Beck, were effective in act one, but left no room for the dancers in the cotillion scene, and hobbled Mark Diamond's choreography quite a bit.

James Meena's conducting of the score was taut rather than indulgent Tchaikovsky, but he left room for beauty even so. The winds have distinguished themselves in Otello, in Cosi, and now in Onegin, and the strings sometimes gave off a burnished glow unusual in a first night performance.

As a consequence, there are five or six Russian operas that I hope they perform sooner rather than later, with Tchaikovsky's own Queen of Spades heading the list.