By Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Conducted by James Conlon
Directed by Francesca Gilpin
With Oksana Dyka, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Vsevolod Grivnov, Dalibor Jenis, Ronnita Nicole Miller, and James Creswell
Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Oct. 9, 2011
It is hard not to love Tchaikovsky. His lyricism, rich orchestration, and broad emotion reach even non-classical music lovers. Music Director James Conlon routinely brings the full depth from any score his Los Angeles Opera Orchestra tackles. In “Eugene Onegin,” they soar. Interestingly, given the popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music, and the familiarity of selections from Onegin, this is the first time in the company’s 25 years to present it.
“Onegin” is based on a poem by Pushkin, the wildly revered poet of Russia. He is the one author I can think of anywhere in the Western world who is regularly on the lips of his nation in ordinary, modern speech. “Onegin” is perhaps the most famous of his works. Did Tchaikovsky adapt the poem literally for the libretto? No, he extracted only the love story. Pushkin is critical of his contemporary society, but Tchaikovsky simply wants to tell an emotional tale. Although he used some direct quotes from the original poem, Tchaikovsky created a new, complex verse form, which has come to be called the Onegin stanza.
The time is 1820, somewhere on a rural estate of no particular grandeur. Two sisters, Tatiana (Oksana Dyka) and Olga (Ekaterina Semenchuk) sing an old fashioned song, their mother and nursemaid fuss about and the peasants, scythes in hand, bring in the sheaves. It is a quintessentially Russian scene. Tatiana, the elder sister, has her face buried in a romantic novel, while Olga, the younger, flits about and is all atwitter over the imminent arrival of their Neighbor, Lensky (Vsevolod Grivnov) whom they have known since childhood and to whom Olga is engaged. Lensky brings his friend Eugene Onegin (Dalibor Jenis), a slightly older young man, who has just purchased a nearby estate. Onegin is often called a Byronic figure: arrogant, urbane, clever, and distant. He pays some attention to the shy, bookish Tatiana and chides his friend for pursuing the shallow one instead of the more poetic sister. That evening Tatiana’s heart is so brimming with romance that later, in her bedroom, she takes an extraordinarily aggresive step for her a woman of her times and writes a passionate letter to him. She insists her nursemaid see to it that the letter is delivered. After staying awake until morning, the realization of her foolishness dawns upon her only to be confirmed later by a visit from Onegin himself. Cooley, he advises her not to entertain such thoughts or send such letters, he is not good for her, and that, were they to marry, he would fall out of love for her soon after.
Six months later, at the ball celebrating Tatiana’s name day, Lensky brings along Onegin, who barely pays her any attention. Apparently bored out of his mind and annoyed at his friend’s attentions to his own fiancé, Onegin flirts with Olga, thereby enraging Lensky. who proceeds to challenge Onegin to a duel. (Interestingly, Pushkin himself was killed in a duel at age thirty-eight.)
In a show of male character few women comprehend, the two men follow through with the duel the next day and Onegin lifts his gun and kills his good friend Lensky. Haunted by guilt, Onegin tries to shed his past by traveling the world. Arriving years later in Saint Petersburg, he happens into an elegant reception given by Prince Gremlin (James Creswell) and spots a woman who is regal and gracious … and vaguely familiar. In response to a query by Onegin, the prince says that she is his wife, Tatiana Larina. Onegin realizes that he had missed his opportunity to lead a less desolate life and find happiness and meaning. When he arranges a last, secret meeting with Tatiana he declares his love. She, despite still loving him, refuses him out of a sense of duty and morality.
The Music Center version was originally a joint production of the Finnish National Opera and London’s Royal Opera House. It is spare, for the most part effectively combining contemporary sensibility with period flourishes. There are a few problems, however. Is the Covent Garden stage more shallow than the Dorothy Chandler’s? Even if so, why not add a couple of extra panels to the sides to enlarge the ballroom for Tatiana’s name-day ball? As it was, the robust and joyous singing of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus was rendered almost immobile and dancers were cramped. Before the ball, during a purely orchestral moment, Tatiana is sitting alone and strange masked creatures appeared in the window. Were they from a nightmare the shy young woman was having in dread of the festivities about to commence? That might have been intriguing in a more surrealistic production, but in this production they seem out of place.
Throughout the scenes in the country estate there is a stream with real water. That is a nice touch, but director Francesca Gilpin is ineffective at getting the young women to realistically cavort in the water with their sodden hems. In tender, emotional scenes she ill-uses the Chandler’s deep stage and voices are often over-ridden by the appropriately swelling orchestra.
One scene, however, is spectacular. During the al fresco reception thrown by the prince the space that had previously been occupied by the stream appeared frozen. Figure skaters, almost in slow motion as if to give the impression of times past, glide gracefully back and forth on old-fashioned skates. They are magnificent, and even knowing how it is done (Mylar and tiny rollers), it is thoroughly convincing and enjoyable.
With two notable exceptions, Gilpin does not bring out a full range of emotion in most of the cast. Dyka and Jenis are both somewhat wooden until their final duet, when they convey that their love is never to be consummated. The notable exceptions, both of whom figure far too small in the script to take full advantage of their full and expressive voices, are mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller, the nursemaid, and bass James Creswell, the Prince. Interestingly both are products of the LA Opera Company. Miller is an alumna of the LA Opera Company’s Young Artist Program and James Creswell was a resident artist. In addition to his magnificent bass, Creswell cuts a princely presence and conveys the meaning of the lyrics. May they both come home often.
There is no quarrelling with the orchestra, or, for that matter, the basic strength of the vocalists. What is lacking is the unbridled emotion that is central to Tchaikovsky’s purpose. As is customary for the Los Angeles Opera, the first two productions are done in repertory. On its own this production of “Eugene Onegin” might seem more satisfying. However, seen on consecutive days with the company’s splendidly cast, splendidly acted, and splendidly sung “Così Fan Tutte” the modest acting and lack of emotion in “Onegin” are drawn into stark relief. In Act I, Tatiana and Olga’s mother cautions her daughters, “Routine is sent for us from above as a substitute for happiness.” Sadly, with few exceptions, serviceable feels like an appropriate descriptor of this “Eugene Onegin;” one dreams of more than routine.