“Eugene Onegin,” a 150-year-old Russian opera is a Tchaikovsky production for the ages. Currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera and the end of Opera Omaha’s 2021-2022 season, it transcends the evocative nature of unrequited love. This production of “Onegin,” was set as a 1950’s memory play- a look back on the past and a reflection of what could have been, a reflection of decisions, regret, romance and ultimately ruin.
Originally a novel serialized in 1825 and 1832 by Alexandar Pushkin, “Onegin,” encapsulates the deepest feelings of love at first sight, the rejection of that love and what follows. Perhaps Tchaikovsky himself knew the value and weight of what romantic feelings really can do to oneself, how it shapes and molds the future of a person’s life. And so, he took the poetic verses of novelist Pushkin and turned them into a musical masterpiece of lyrical scenes. Tchaikovsky had composed many score for ballets and operas, but “Onegin” presented a challenge. With little to no action in the plot and just the dramatic text to rely upon, he capitalized on the mood and emotion of the atmospheric piece-we see into the mind of his muse Tatyana and what she is expressing in her lovesick state. A seminal moment, it defines her life and the fate she is to live as she goes on to marry a prince and eventually join the circles of nobility.
Tatyana is a young, wistful woman who daydreams and reads alone in the garden. Sung by soprano Lauren Michelle, she makes her mainstage debut as the ingenue lead who deeply dreams and desires to be in love with the traveling dandy Eugene Onegin. An elegant lyric soprano, Michelle draws you in with her captivating vocal beauty, an expression of true pining and wistful demeanor.
Tatyana, mind you, is supposed to be 17 years old. In the memory play version she is far older, thirty years have passed, and she finds herself reflecting on these painful yet sentimental moments of her life. Director Rosetta Cucchi is careful to demonstrate this with the play of memory by the closing of curtains marking each distant memory (and act,) as the suspended moments in time play to the gray cast of light in the shadows. In listening to “Onegin,” we hear that melancholy and longing as Tatyana composes a letter to Eugene in an infatuated state of angst and bliss, the highest of notes emulating her ecstasy.We watch as her fate unfolds as other characters are drawn into scenarios that determine their futures.
Tatyana’ sister, played by mezzo-soprano Hilary Gunther, is flirtatious and girlish, betrothed to Vladimir Lensky ( tenor Scott Quinn). Ginther also makes her Omaha debut as the self-absorbed younger sister, decadent yet coyly engaging at the social gatherings she attends.
Baritone Alexander Elliott returns as Eugene Onegin after his portrayal of Opera Omaha’s Silvio in Pagliacci. His Onegin is cold and aloof, brooding yet mesmerizing and alluding to mystery.
One must keep in mind when watching this opera that it is sung entirely in Russian, a rarity in the robust catalogue of operatic works. The score has intricate melodies that are both dissonant and harmonious. The chorus joins in beautiful Russian folk refrains, as they sing of joyous times and the apprehension of an impending dual between Onegin and Lensky. Most notable scenes are Tatyana’s Letter Scene and the conflict between Tatyana and Eugene at the end of Act 3, with riveting musicality that soars to a full climax-and tension of temptation and fidelity that exists back and forth in the final scene.
The costumes by Neil Fortin are also something to note, elaborate bodices of the vintage tea length dresses and couture ball gowns in Act 2 and 3 are stitched with glittering, embroidered artistry and lend a polishing touch to the lyrical scenes, as each piece was custom built for the singers in the ensemble.
It could be said that “Onegin,” is a woeful tale, that of admonition and of the cost of being impassioned yet impulsive-Lensky is killed over an overt flirtatious gesture with Olga which registers as betrayal in his eyes. He challenges Onegin to a round of Russian roulette and loses. One has to ask, is it all for nothing-the boredom and ennui that Onegin feels, traipsing by in life, going from party to party, just for him to turn around and declare his love after years of repudiating Tatyana’s affections? We are led to believe that this time it is genuine; this time he feels remorse and is a lonely man wandering sorrowfully through life.
Beautifully performed and staged, “Eugene Onegin,” leaves a lasting impression and rounds out the end of the Opera Omaha season with panache.