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Only the second Tchaikovsky opera ever performed at the LA Opera, after The Queen of Spades in 2001, Eugene Onegin provided a gratifying if not thrilling way to start off the company’s 25th anniversary season. Musically rich but dramatically somewhat second-hand, the work plays more like panels of scenes from, rather than a full-bodied adaptation of, Pushkin’s landmark verse novel, a piece to be admired intellectually rather than to be swept up in emotionally, even though the passions felt by the characters are of the most intense order.
Originally staged in 2006 at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, by the late Steven Pimlott, and jointly produced by the Finnish National Opera, this production has been cleanly mounted by Francesca Gilpin, whose The Turn of the Screw at LA Opera last season boasted a similar trim clarity. The four principal singers, ranging from perfectly acceptable to quite a bit more than that, all hail from Russia or Eastern Europe and three of them are making their local debuts. And once a scrim bearing a giant profile portrait of a naked brooding young man was finally successfully hoisted upward after thumping twice to the stage at the outset on opening night, nary a glitch followed.
Written between 1825-32, Pushkin’s tale centers on a wealthy young man of society whose detached, mordant view of life leads him to believe transcendent love and marriage are not in the cards for him; he realizes far too late the mistake he has makes in rejecting the passion of a dreamy young woman whose emotions he has awakened. Much beloved by ardent adherents of Russian literature, it is a tragic tale of missed opportunities, of the disconnect rather than any consummation between the main characters, of a society constructed more to squelch positive personal relations rather than to foster them.
As adapted by Tchaikovsky and Konstantin S. Shilovsky, Onegin is a sideline figure through most of the first half of his own story, a darkly brooding figure to whom Tatiana can attach the all-consuming romantic reveries she has cultivated through voracious reading. Tatiana’s more down-to-earth sister Olga is engaged to the poet Lensky, who brings his friend Onegin from St. Petersburg for a visit to the rural country home of the sisters and their mother, an interlude that will change the destinies of them all.
Along with providing a large onstage pond in which Olga and local peasants can splash around and which, later, is impressively transformed into ice for skating, Anthony McDonald’s dramatically spare scenic design dramatically suggests the vast countryside surrounding the estate
A quartet of women, completed by the old family nurse, dominates almost entirely in Act I, anchored by the long aria in which Tatiana stays up all night writing a confessional letter to Onegin about her blossoming love, feelings he soon coolly deflects. The rangy, brown-haired Ukranian soprano Oksana Dyka, in her American debut, held the stage impressively here, offering the vocal equivalent of a flower’s petals opening to the sun, while the orchestra’s work under James Conlon, strong all night, was especially beguiling in the alternation of wind instruments during key passages of Tatiana’s awakening.
This long scene would likely have been even more effective had not the bedroom set been relegated to the back half of the stage, whereas, conversely, the colorful ball that opens Act II looked uncomfortably cramped by its confinement to the front half, with the entire chorus jammed into a very shallow space. Petulantly, Onegin spends the evening dancing with Olga, eventually infuriating the hyper-sensitive Lensky to the extent that only a duel will satisfy the offense. A years’ later third act, in which Onegin encounters Tatiana, now the dignified wife of an old prince, serves to bitterly confirm the truth of his earlier proclamation that, “I wasn’t meant to be happy.”
The dramatic potential of Eugene Onegin remains muted rather than dynamic because the characters remark upon their feelings far more than they act on them; and then, when they do, they are invariably out of synch. Only intermittently is one lured out of a strictly mental engagement to become pulled into the dramatic moment.
Sporting long flowing black locks and a proud manner, Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis put the title role across with vocal skill and strength, although the characterization could have used more colors and rough edges to make it more interesting. Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov’s was an excitable and vibrantly sung, if not noticeably poetic, Lensky.
Venue: LA Opera (through Oct. 9)
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Text: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Konstantin S. Shilovsky, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin
Cast: Dalibor Jenis, Oksana Dyka, Vsevolod Grivnov, Ekaterina Semenchuk, James Creswell, Margaret Thompson, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Keith Jameson, Philip Cokorinos, Erik Anstine
Conductor: James Conlon
Original production: Steven Pimlott
Director: Francesca Gilpin
Scenic and costume designer: Anthony McDonald
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Original choreographer: Ulrika Hallberg
182 minutes (including intermission)
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