Alexander Pushkin knew intimately the world of which he wrote in his novel-in-verse “Eugene Onegin.” He was raised by nannies and tutors in a Russian countryside estate, attended Lyceum in St. Petersburg, and died in a duel after insulting his wife’s alleged lover in a letter. His character, Onegin, was also a bored, aristocratic youth with nothing but time and money on his hands. However, when Tchaikovsky decided to turn Onegin into an opera, the character he related to most was Tatyana, Onegin’s jilted love interest. At the time he was working on the opera, he himself began receiving love letters from a music student who was besotted with him. Instead of rejecting her, like Onegin rejected Tatyana, he accepted his student’s love, and married her.
Santa Fe Opera’s 2021 production was led by two last-minute substitutions—Sarah Jakubiak as Tatyana, and Lucas Meachem as Onegin. The roles were originally to have been sung by Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis, a married couple who were unable to travel to the US due to Covid restrictions. Musically, the subs were strong—it was in the dramatic rendering of the story where things fell apart. Blame should go to the direction by Alessandro Talevi, a young South African, who placed chorus members on bleachers (a Covid safety measure which created a pleasing vocal experience coming from the side of the theater–but no drama) and decided that the dance duties at crucial party scenes, in two different acts, would be taken-on by a troupe of local circus performers with little dance experience. (Choreography was credited to Athol Famer.) That was a mistake.
The setting, by Gary McCann, was evocative—with countryside and its suggestion of the natural and animal worlds just outside the grand rooms of the Russian estate. The presence of deer in the woods (played by the dancers) starts things off in an intriguing manner—but the movements of the deer people begin to seem obtrusive, and things only become worse when they appear as masked party-goers during major dance sections. To have music by the composer of “Swan Lake” taken over by a band of non-dancers was a disappointment to say the least. No matter that the ball-gowns they wore in Act Four were gorgeous–the unclear, unarticulated and amateurish quality of this aspect of the production was an insult to the professionalism of every other aspect of the opera. For an erstwhile dance critic—it was embarrassing to watch.
Meacham himself was the other weak link. Musically, he was solid, with a rich baritone voice, but in the role of a spoiled youth, his dramatic portrayal was middle-aged and unconvincing. His was a stand-and-sing kind of performance, which made the effective acting by Tatyana and Olga, (Olga was played by the extremely adept Avery Amereau) the two sisters at the heart of the opera, and the full-bodied angst demonstrated by Lensky, sung beautifully by Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, seem overdone. Again, better direction might have melded the singers’ dramatic energies.
Tchaikovsky expressed initial discomfort with the character of Onegin and his life of ennui–which had become an archetype in Russian literature of the time—the “superfluous man.” It was Pushkin’s poetry that won over the composer’s imagination, however, and which stands out in the libretto of the opera. But at the time of the composition of Onegin, 1877, the seeds for the Soviet Union were already sewn. The Russian Empire had abolished serfdom. Soon there would be peasant uprisings and the end of centuries of aristocratic rule. Although the Russian Revolution didn’t occur until 1917, the “superfluous man” was already endangered– it was nobles like Onegin who were eventually eliminated as an entire class.
If only this production had had a protagonist whose dramatic performance more powerfully illustrated a lifestyle that was about to end. Boredom was on its way out.