Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the perfervid product of an overheated 19th-century imagination, always seems longer than one’s watch indicates at the end of a performance. This impression is not at all helped by the glacial pace of the four scene changes in the current Lyric Opera production–one has to wonder if Lyric is economizing by reducing the stage crew or if the crew is engaging in some informal job action.
Eugene Onegin makes clear why Tchaikovsky is not numbered among the Russian nationalist composers known as “the five”: Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The musical style of the entire opera is from somewhere well west of the Vistula, with the possible exception of the obligatory “happy Russian peasant” chorus at the top of the first act. This is not per se a fault, as a lot can be said for cosmopolitanism. But Tchaikovsky, with the assistance of colibrettist Konstantin Shilovsky, chose a thoroughly Russian story line, Pushkin’s famed novel in verse. This poem is the epitome of an early-19th-century perverse, whining romanticism–the doctrine that it is impossible to be both a thinking and feeling being, and that faced with a choice between the two, feeling is better. Leaven this with Russian fatalism and Onegin becomes a kind of Slavic Werther, steeped in ennui and despair, but without the good taste to commit suicide.
In act one Onegin spurns the girlish love of Tatiana on the grounds that he is unsuited to domesticity and would therefore make her unhappy. As the opera unfolds, one is inclined to agree with him. In act two Onegin provokes a fight with his best friend, the poet Lensky, by flirting with Lensky’s fiancee, Tatiana’s sister Olga. Later, after a maudlin reverie by Lensky, an angst-ridden romantic adolescent, they duel, and Onegin contrives to kill the hapless scribbler. (There is a historical irony in this plot element, since Pushkin himself was killed in just such a duel.) In the final act, Onegin, after six years of aimless drifting, again meets Tatiana, who is now married to old Prince Gremin. In true 19th-century form, Onegin suddenly and for no apparent reason decides that the girl he spurned is now the key to his happiness and redemption. (Wagner would have at least thrown in a magic potion.) Tatiana is correct when she implies that the only reason Onegin is now interested in her is that he can make a big splash by running off with a distinguished man’s wife. After some vacillating, she turns him down.
In many ways some of the so-called romantic 19th-century operas are as alien to the aesthetic of the 20th century as the court spectacles from the time of Louis XV. In Eugene Onegin foolish characters blunder with no apparent motivation through their colorless lives, and we end up simply not caring about them. Looking for an engine to drive these characters–power, lust, revenge, jealousy, resentment–we come up empty-handed. For Tchaikovsky fans, there are a few memorable numbers that are reminiscent of his charming ballet music. These snippets are gratifying, but they’re peripheral and don’t make a base strong enough to support a long work.
The roots of opera and of its power with audiences lie in myth. The artificial nature of the operatic experience gives a larger-than-life aspect to the characters onstage. And without some motivating force, the characters in Eugene Onegin are cardboard–more obviously devoid of power because they have been so magnified.
In Lyric’s production Anna Tomowa-Sintow, while hardly looking the part of an impressionable teenager, walks away with the musical laurels. Tatiana is the closest thing we find to a sympathetic character in this opera, and Tomowa-Sintow makes the most of her music. If her struggles to resist Onegin’s advances in the third act seem pale, the weakness lies with the vehicle rather than the singer. Wolfgang Brendel in the title role seems admirably cast–musically correct but dramatically cold, aloof, and unsympathetic. Dimitri Kavrakos’s profundo bass voice continues to gain warmth and power. As Prince Gremin, he’s in his element, in contrast to his dramatically unsound Pogner in Die Meistersinger of a few seasons ago. Vyacheslav Polozov provides a marginally acceptable Lensky. Sandra Walker, somewhat slimmed down, is appealing as Olga, the poor little girl who somehow gets forgotten after Onegin kills her lover. Contralto Gweneth Bean, as Tatiana’s beloved old nurse Filipyevna, made as good an impression as she did in the 1984 Lyric production–one only wishes she had more to do.
The ballet sequences, important in that they have the best music in the show, were carried off with no noticeable problems, while the Lyric chorus sounded more at home with Tchaikovsky than they had earlier this season with Alceste. Though the Lyric orchestra blared out the showpieces with gusto, they seemed otherwise listless. The stage designs by Pier Luigi Samaritani served the work well and didn’t look any the worse for being a few years old. But Samaritani’s stage direction didn’t add any more life to the characters than had been imparted to them by the libretto.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.