WNO’S ‘Eugene Onegin’

Russian composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin seem an unlikely pair of collaborators, not least because Pushkin died (in a duel with pistols, no less) three years before Tchaikovsky was born. Yet collaborate they have, and collaborate they do, in Washington National Opera’s first-rate production of Eugene Onegin that opened last night at the Kennedy Center.

They even get to stage, with an assist from directors Robert Carsen and Peter McClintock, what arguably is opera’s most famous duel with pistols.

For all but workers in the fields of opera, Italian is surely the most familiar language, with the No. 2 slot filled quite revealingly by either French or German. Few are accustomed to the meaning, or even the sound, of Russian, beyond a production of Boris Godunov sometime in the distant past. Still, with the English surtitles working overtime, WNO’s rendition delivers a powerful orchestral counterpoint to singing, and indeed singers, imported from Russia.

In some ways, Tchaikovsky’s resetting of Pushkin’s tale is extraordinary. He wrote the libretto himself – or maybe “organized” is a more accurate description, since he relied heavily on the actual words of Pushkin’s “novel in verse.” This was a wise survival technique, since Pushkin in Russia is revered and recited much the way Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world. Certainly, delivered into English on a screen above the stage, the libretto comes off as a great deal smarter than the average opera.

The production, originally created by the Canadian Opera Company for the Metropolitan Opera, relies mostly on minimalism set against vast empty spaces above, meaning that light-meeting-dark and ever-changing hues fill in where, no doubt, chandeliers and voluptuous draperies would have been in the past. Picture War and Peace staged in the manner of Waiting for Godot, and you get something of the idea.   

Falling leaves are the single most important motif – falling and already fallen – at one point even benefitting from a host of somberly singing ladies with brooms sweeping out a large circle at the center of the stage for the next scene to be played. It is a striking, and mildly confusing, bow to realism on a stage that seems more about emotional suggestion than anything else.  

Two scenes in the opera stand out visually, each featuring a recognized aria. In the first, a young, naïve and nightgown-clad Tatiana writes a love letter to an older man she’s just met – she of the pampered yet remote Russian countryside and he of the sophisticated yet eternally bored big city. She writes to him all night, with the dawn coming once as though in her imagination (and the Oscar for happiest use of autumn leaves goes to…) and then again, presumably meaning it this time. The scene is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

The second visual highlight, more predictably, is the stark clearing at dawn where Eugene Onegin, that older man from the big city, meets and kills his longtime best friend Lensky in a duel. Lensky arrives first before the sun comes up, allowing him to regret and hope and surrender and pray in a fog-shrouded field with barely enough light for the audience to see him. He also gets to sing perhaps this opera’s most famous melody, known simply as “Lensky’s Aria.”

Though many opera stars from around the world have sung Russian enough to get by, WNO makes a wise choice of stars from Russia itself. The two leads, soprano Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana and baritone Igor Golovatenko as Onegin, both making their American debuts, bring perfection to their portrayals, especially since she has to evolve from naïve to worldly and he from bored with life to desperate for love. He knows he’s pretty much out of time. He tells us he’s 26.

Tenor Alexey Dolgov does a plausible job with the acting as Lensky, though his quick conclusion that Onegin is betraying him with his one true love Olga is hard to believe (in our time anyway), no matter how much ballroom angsting he sets before us. In any case, he does a fine job with his pre-duel aria, and was on opening night rewarded with an extended ovation. Lindsay Ammann shines dramatically and vocally as Olga, the highest-ranking non-Russian in the cast.

Not surprisingly, considering the diversity of non-sung works Tchaikovsky produced in his lifetime – from The Nutcracker to the iconic ballet of Sleeping Beauty – the score deserves particular note. At times the orchestra seems to be enjoying its own little concert, not merely leading or following the singers. As conducted by Robert Trevino, the effort repays each and every effort we make to listen more carefully than is our voice-centric opera norm.  

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