February 24, 2008


Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Stage Director: Julia Pevzner. Presented at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia, February 24, 2008.

      The best performances of Eugene Onegin skillfully conceal the fact that its central character is a thoroughly unsympathetic emotional cipher whose supposed discovery of love near the end – too late for it to bring him happiness – rings entirely false. Virginia Opera’s new production makes sure that there is so much happening on stage that this huge hole in the plot becomes almost incidental.

      Eugene Onegin is intimate opera on a grand scale, but because of the title character’s emotional vapidity, it never rises to the level of tragedy. It is a domestic opera, mostly lacking in dramatic action, that turns on a phrase sung early in Act I about being forced to settle in life for “habit in place of happiness.” It is also, of all things, an epistolary opera, with a crucial letter in Act I provoking a confrontation that is reflected in the finale of Act III.

      Virginia Opera divides Eugene Onegin into two parts rather than three acts, which keeps things flowing. And there is so much to see and marvel at onstage that the wonderful music sweeps the audience along even when the plot, after Alexander Pushkin’s novel, creaks. The staging is strikingly atmospheric, featuring the blades of a windmill turning at stage left – initially setting a rustic atmosphere but then clearly becoming symbolic of the turning of fortune’s wheel, since they reappear repeatedly, even when the opera concludes at the Gremin Palace in St. Petersburg. Mirrored panels at stage left enlarge the space and reflect the characters’ actions, also allowing activities occurring within the enclosed space at the right – a revolving area representing a house exterior and various interiors, as needed – to be visible to the audience in reflected form. The visual effect is extremely striking, and is used wonderfully by stage director Julia Pevzner, scenic designer Alexander Lisiyansky and lighting designer Mark McCullough.

      But no one goes to Eugene Onegin to marvel at a set, even a marvelous one. Virginia Opera Music Director Peter Mark presents the music with intensity and a heightening of the drama within the libretto. The result is an extraordinarily vivid production.

      This is the first Russian-language production in Virginia Opera’s 33-year history, and there has clearly been tremendous attention paid to period detail and correct pronunciation. Several singers are Russian speakers, but even those who are not handle the language with apparent ease. Veronica Mitina is wonderful as Tatiana, who falls in love with Onegin when she is young and rejects him years later after she has married someone else and he belatedly (if unconvincingly) falls in love with her. Mitina’s soprano is high, clear, and girlish at first, with excellent durability evident in her famous letter-writing scene; then her voice is enhanced with warmth when she reappears as a married woman; and then it reverts to its previous sound as she contemplates recapturing what she and Onegin once had, or could have had. This is remarkable vocal acting – and excellent singing, too.

      Jason Detwiler is a striking presence visually and a dramatic one vocally as Onegin, standing straight and unbending throughout the opera until he collapses at Tatiana’s feet in the final scene. His baritone, strongest in the middle register, always makes him sound as if he is uttering pronouncements rather than speaking – quite right for this character. If his motivation for the things he does is nil, if his eventual declaration of love is unbelievable, this is the fault of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, not Detwiler, who does the best he can with what he is given.

      As Lensky, the friend whom Onegin ends up killing in a duel inspired (apparently) mainly by the boredom that seems to be Onegin’s primary motivation, Patrick Miller is Onegin’s opposite: passionate, hot-headed, impulsive and – in his aria just before the duel – intensely emotional. His intended and Tatiana’s sister, Olga, is sung by Oksana Sitnitska with real flair, in an appealing mixture of naïveté and coquettishness that turns out to have fatal consequences.

      Other standout singers are Todd Robinson as Prince Gremin – his emotional declaration of love for his wife, Tatiana, is everything that Onegin’s is not – and Barbara Dever as the nurse, Filippievna, who provides Tatiana and Olga with somewhat more grounding in reality than either can handle.

      As fine as the singers are, it is the production touches that time and again steal the show. Making the French poet Triquet (Omar Salam) a fey and foppish posturer as he read the verses for Tatiana’s Name Day after positioning her on a chair with her arm and head placed just so is one neat touch among many. Some others are the choreography of the Name Day dance, at which Onegin provokes Lensky by flirting with Olga; the way Tatiana tears her letter to Onegin (which he has handed back to her) into little pieces as he rejects her; the appearance of Olga in her house, lighting a candle and praying in the background as Onegin and Lensky prepare to duel in the foreground; and the instant transformation of the rustic set to a palace court by the wheeling in of tall columns.

      And there is, permeating all, Tchaikovsky’s music, which invests the opera with a greater depth of emotion than it inherently contains. Conductor Mark keeps the emotional temperature high throughout – an approach that works particularly well for Tchaikovsky – and deserves much of the credit for giving this Eugene Onegin such impact. Onegin the character is one of those “careless people” of whom F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote so memorably in The Great Gatsby. Like Tom and Daisy, Onegin is a catalyst of fatal or emotionally devastating actions, but remains himself unaffected by the evil he has done – for all that he ends the opera bemoaning his fate. Far from being a Byronic hero (something he accuses Lensky of looking like on Tatiana’s Name Day), Onegin is merely self-involved. It is Virginia Opera’s production that involves us so thoroughly in his life and the lives of those around him.

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