Before I begin commenting on the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera, Eugene Onegin that we saw last night I should reveal that Pushkin’s scintillating, garrulous novel in verse is one of my favorite works of literature, Pushkin is one of my favorite literary lights, and I believe that he deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world than he is. I’ve read the novel several times over the years and each time I return to it I find it completely enthralling. It would be worth learning Russian if only to read his works.
And, like many Russians, particularly Russian intellectuals, I’m critical of Tchaikovsky’s operatic setting of the plot of the novel. As you might expect, the work is full of good dance music: waltzes, polonaises, ecossaises, and more. And it has some melodic if not memorable arias, Tatyana’s in the first act, Lensky’s lament in the second, and Prince Gremin’s aria in the third. My criticism has more to do with the way in which the libretto treats its characters, particularly that of Tatyana.
By the time the last act comes around, Tatyana, the erstwhile unsophisticated country girl, is the knowing wife of a prince, imposing, composed, wise, and regal. In her speech with which the novel concludes, although she admits she still loves Onegin, she never loses her bearing or composure. I am given to another; I will be true to him for life. The overwrought last act quasi-duet is just not true to Tatyana, one of literature’s great female characters.
The production we saw last night was the Met’s production. Period costumes, abstract sets. You can get an idea of what it’s like from the picture above (taken from the Met’s production) of the introduction to Act I. Onegin stands alone on a stage bare but for the swirl of autumn leaves on the floor and the color-flooded walls.
It was an extremely effective, always interesting production.
As Onegin in the picture is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a Russian baritone, probably the greatest Russian baritone of the last half century, with the lyric timbre typical of Russian baritones and which I think I appreciated more than did my wife, who found him merely adequate. He’s something of an Onegin specialist. With his athletic build and mane of shocking prematurely white hair he certainly makes a striking figure on stage.
The cast was, perhaps, the most even of any opera we’ve heard this season. Dina Kuznetsova was marvelous as Tatyana, and her first act aria received lengthy and deserved applause. Frank Lopardo did his typically excellent job in the role of Lensky, Onegin’s friend and eventual dueling opponent. His Russian accent was awful. Vitalij Kowaljow was a standout as Gremin, Tatyana’s military hero husband. His third act aria proclaiming his love for Tatyana was one of the high points of the evening.
We did not hear the mezzo scheduled to sing Filipyevna, Tatyana’s nanny, who was ill, but were marvelously fortunate to hear Meredith Arwady, whom we had just heard as Mistress Quickly, in the role. She contributed substantially to the vibrant energy that the entire cast brought to the performance.
Eugene Onegin was without doubt one of the highlights of the season. This contrasts sharply with Lyric’s production of 18 years ago, through which we could barely stay awake.
Handicapping the season so far: Julius Caesar, Falstaff, Eugene Onegin (tied with Falstaff), Die Frau ohne Schatten, La Traviata, La bohème, Doctor Atomic. Advantage Julius Caesar but Falstaff and Eugene Onegin weren’t far behind.
Last night was the first performance of the opera this season and there hasn’t been much in the way of reviews yet.
“Onegin” did not enter the Lyric repertory until 1984, when the great Italian soprano Mirella Freni brought delicate pathos to Tatyana’s adolescent desperation. The pretty painterly tableaux of that production have been replaced by a starke staging by Robert Carsen, in minimalist designs by Michael Levine borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera.
The Lyric performances may be your last chance to hear the definitive Onegin of Dmitri Hvorostovsky; the Siberian baritone has suggested in interviews that he will soon retire the role. Last year he bowed out of the second half of the show’s run. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien will portray the brooding playboy for the final five performances here.
Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli last year gave up what was to have been her Lyric and role debuts as Tatyana because, as she admitted through her manager, she was unable to learn the role. Lyric has replaced her with one of its own, Dina Kuznetsova, the Russian-born soprano and Ryan Opera Center alumna.
Regardless how you categorize it, this is a wonderful way to spend an evening: memorable tunes for the soloists and chorus, and an orchestral score that matches anything else Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote.
Lyric Opera’s production has as ideal a cast as one could hope for.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the critically acclaimed Siberian baritone who made his American operatic debut with the Lyric in the 1993-94 season, is unrivaled as Onegin, his signature role. It’s a difficult role, one in which Onegin, in Act 1, he regards Tatyana’s love letter to him as the work of a “daydreamer;” then, after several years have passed, he realizes he does love Tatyana. But having since married, she tells Onegin that although she still loves him, her life must go on without him.
The last moments of the opera, with the despondent Onegin realizing what might have been, is particularly memorable when portrayed by a singing-actor of Hvorostovsky’s stature.
Tatyana is performed by Dina Kuznetsoza, the Russian-American soprano who has become a fixture at the Lyric, most recently last season as Juliette in “Romeo et Juliette” and as Gilda in “Rigoletto” in 2005-06.
“Eugene Onegin’s emotional centerpiece is the so-called “letter scene” in Act 1. When the youthful Tatyana pours out her love, in writing, for Onegin, Kuznetsova handles this lengthy aria beautifully. Later, Kuznetsova is equally as convincing in her rejection scene.
American tenor Frank Lopardo, a Lyric Opera favorite for nearly two decades, nearly steals the show as the doomed Lensky, who realizes too late that challenging Onegin to a pistol duel is not such a good idea. Lopardo’s heartfelt aria, “Kuda, kuda,” foretelling his death, received one of the warmest responses from Saturday’s audience.
Meredith Arwady was the heroine of the evening as Filipyevna, Tatyana’s maidservant. The third-year Ryan Opera Center member, most recently acclaimed in the key role of Pasqualita in this season’s production of “Doctor Atomic,” took over on very short notice for English mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who was ill. Arwady’s collaboration with Kuznetsova was a key element of the Letter Scene. The Michigan-born mezzo-soprano appears headed toward a major operatic career.
Michael Levine’s stark scenic design (basically, three unadorned walls) was made effective by lighting that changed colors to show the time of day or night as well as reflect the mood of each scene. The costumes, also by Levine, were more traditional of the 1820s Russia in which “Eugene Onegin” is set.
I’ll update as more reviews appear.
John Von Rhein has given a glowing review to the performance:
If you look at the majority of shows Lyric Opera of Chicago has presented this season, you must conclude the company has been riding one of the most remarkable artistic rolls in recent memory. There was plenty of momentum going into the season’s final opera, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” and the brilliant production that opened Saturday night at the Civic Opera House is fully in keeping with the successes that preceded it.
Robert Carsen’s staging, borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera and re-created here by Paula Suozzi, rejects hoary romantic cliche in favor of acute psychological observation. This is a thinking person’s “Onegin,” a reinterpretation every bit as bracing as the director’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and “Iphigenie en Tauride” here last season.
Michael Levine’s sets, minimalist to the point of abstraction, place the action in a vast void enclosed by towering walls on which Jean Kalman’s poetic lighting, faithfully captured by Christine Binder, focuses mood in telling silhouette and shadow. A carpet of autumn leaves suggests the Russian countryside. A tight rectangle of chairs evokes a provincial party. Levine’s artful costumes are enough to convey period flavor.
The Lyric has cast four of the five principal roles with some of the finest Russian-speaking singers around, entrusting Tchaikovsky’s great score to music director Andrew Davis, a conductor as attentive to his singers’ needs as he is to lyrical fervor, emotional introspection and textural clarity.
The hunky and handsome Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought a superbly resonant voice and proper loftiness to Onegin, a role he was born to sing. The Siberian superstar baritone is sharing the title role with Mariusz Kwiecien, who will sing the final five performances beginning March 17.
If Dina Kuznetsova couldn’t quite summon the required vocal power for her most impassioned outbursts, the Russian-born soprano more than compensated with a Tatyana of affecting vulnerability, poignancy and grace. The Ryan Center alumna gave the extended Letter Scene everything she had, refining the voice to a silvery sliver, soaring in rapturous song. It will be difficult to forget the exquisite diminuendo she sustained in the final scene.
Frank Lopardo, an American tenor heretofore identified with the major Italian lyric roles, scored a triumph of anti-typecasting as an exceptionally ardent and sensitive Lensky. The expressive force he summoned for his aria drew the evening’s longest and loudest applause.
Soviet Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze was pretty of face and voice as the flirty sister Olga.
Ukrainian native Vitalij Kowaljow intoned Gremin’s princely platitudes with a deep and sonorous Slavic bass. Keith Jameson, another house debut, invested the little serenade of Monsieur Triquet with bel-canto finesse.
Andrew Patner for the Sun-Times:
Lyric Opera of Chicago closes its 2007-’08 season with a powerful production of a work that came late to the company, Tchaikovsky’s 1879 romantic juggernaut, “Eugene Onegin.” Adapted from the literary work most dear to Russian hearts, it’s a story of the effect of emotional isolation and social snobbery on the soul. While Russians often say that the opera is no substitute for Pushkin’s unique 1833 novel in verse, Tchaikovsky’s work stands on its own both as an introduction to a poetic masterpiece and as a distillation of the tragic side of the human comedy.
Onegin’s hapless friend Lensky, who knows his deficiencies as a poet and hopes instead to make his life into art, has one of the great tenor arias, “Kuda, kuda,” and American Frank Lopardo invests it with passion and power if not always a Russianness on the level of the cast’s native speakers. As Tatyana’s coquettish sister Olga, Georgian mezzo Nino Surguladze makes a pleasant U.S. debut. American soprano Marie Plette is charming as the girls’ widowed mother in her Lyric debut and American tenor Keith Jameson nails Monsieur Triquet’s ridiculous French song in his. The bass Vitalij Kowlajow, a Ukrainian Samuel Ramey, brings the greatest Russian sensibility of the evening to Prince Gremin’s sole aria, the Act Three paean to Tatyana, whom he has married during Onegin’s wanderings.
He’s said it more gracefully than I but I see that Mr. Patner is in substantial agreement with me.