Saturday, June 12, 2010

Eugene Onegin

I saw my second Opera Theatre of St. Louis production this season last Thursday when I saw Eugene Onegin.   With music by Tchaikovsky, based on the Pushkin epic poem, Eugene Onegin is, of course, very Russian.  And, perfectly, OTSL found a Russian soprano, Dina Kuznetsova, to sing the lead role of Tatiana, a shy upper class Russian girl.  Kuznetsova’s voice was rich, pitch perfect, and flowed seemingly effortlessly through the Russian melodies.  More, she inhabited the role of Tatiana as if she were born to play her.  And the icing on the cake was that this non-native English speaker sang the role with perfect American diction while at the same time, especially during her final anguished scenes with Onegin, bringing a slight Russian inflexion to the words that was perfect.

Baritone Christopher Magiera did a fine job with Onegin, a difficult role to act since he is not a very likeable fellow.  In fact, the only other time I’ve seen this opera the baritone singing Onegin was so smarmy from the first moment he stepped on stage that it was beyond belief that Tatiana would fall for him.  But Magiera did well enough with his representation of Onegin in the first scene that it was believable that inexperienced Tatiana would fall for this man simply because he was pleasant to her.

Lindsay Amman sang the role of Tatiana’s sister Olga.  Her voice was a deep contralto that was beautiful but seemed completely wrong for the young, flirtatious blond character.  I wonder why Tchaikovsky decided Olga was a contralto.  Finally, Olga’s beau, Lensky, was sung by Sean Panikkar who sang Count Almaviva in last year’s Ghosts of Versailles.  I would like to see him come back in a lead role because he has a beautiful tenor voice that has only improved in the interval since last year.   His character this year dies in the first Act.  I think he has a voice that could carry a tenor-centric opera and I’d like to see him in one.

The production design was gorgeous.  The country scenes had rows of sunflowers and the interior party scenes were richly costumed.  The direction by Kevin Newberry made sure that the singers didn’t neglect the audience on the sides of OTSL’s thrust stage so we all felt included.  The chorus was a joy to hear.  All in all, it was an outstanding performance.

Now … the story.

As I said, I have seen Eugene Onegin once before and the only thing I can remember about it was that I wanted to shout at Tatiana that Onegin Just. Wasn’t. Worth. It.  But this was at least 20 years ago and I had forgotten all the details of the story so it was nice to come at it fresh.  I’ve never read the Pushkin poem but now that I’ve spent the last two years on my Tolstoy novels I looked at the story more closely as it unfolded. 

What is with the Russian obsession with ‘happy peasants’?  Both of the Tolstoy novels I read elevated rural Russia to an almost mythological level and this was no different.  The peasants came in from the fields like the happiest field hands in the world.  And it suddenly made me want to hear a comparison between Russian writers’ views of rural Russia and the American mythology that the ‘true’ Americans are from small towns in rural America. In fact, the beginning of this opera was staged almost exactly like the opening of Oklahoma except instead of a row of corn in the background there is a row of sunflowers and instead of Aunt Eller churning butter upstage there is a character shucking corn.  I assume this was intentional.   On the other hand there are shelves of American novels celebrating the big city (almost always New York) experience.  Are there similar classic Russian novels that celebrate life in urban Moscow?  Is there a Russian Edith Wharton or Theodore Dreiser?  Maybe Poemless will drop by and give us the scoop.

The other thing that struck me about the story this time was how the second half really makes a wonderful revenge fantasy.  For those that don’t know the story, here it is in a nutshell.   Tatiana and Olga live with their mother on a farm although (based on the end) they must be of a higher class of Russian life.  Olga, a joyous, flirtatious girl,  is in love with the neighbor Lensky and he is head over heels in love with her.  Tatiana, on the other hand, is quiet and shy and spends her time reading novels.  Lensky visits, bringing his friend Eugene Onegin,  Onegin and Tatiana converse (about nothing much) and (unaccountably) Tatiana falls head over heels in love with Onegin.  The second scene takes place in Tatiana’s bedroom where she has a long aria (almost the entire scene) in which she decides to write to Onegin to declare her love for him but worries that she is doing the wrong thing.  She does it anyway.   It is here that I wanted to shout out in the first production I saw and say “Are you kidding?  He’s such a jerk!”  But in this production it wasn’t yet clear that Onegin wasn’t worthy. So there is a little bit of anticipation as we wait to find out how Onegin will receive the letter.  He politely but somewhat condescendingly tells her that he isn’t interested in her, flirts with her sister Olga to make Lensky jealous and then denies that was his intent.  Lensky calls him out and challenges him to a duel.  Onegin kills Lensky and Act One is over.  

In the Second Act, Onegin is tired of his life.  He has been travelling abroad and has finally returned. At a party he meets Tatiana again.  She is now married to a Prince and is grown up and very poised and beautiful.  He falls head over heels in love with her.  She tells him it is too late.  He is devastated and says that all that is left for him is death.  The End.  

Kuznetsova’s acting of Tatiana was perfect.  In the first Act she was shy and tongue tied around company, mostly with her nose in a book.  Even at her own birthday party she is in the corner reading a book.  Her letter-writing aria, when she is alone, is feverished and is exactly what a young girl who lives through romantic tales might go through when she develops a crush.  The look on her face when he tells her he isn’t interested and she probably shouldn’t write letters like that to men was just heartbreaking.  The Tatiana who returns in Act 2 though is, in some ways, a fantasy Tatiana.  Seen from afar by Onegin, she is bejewelled and poised.  A beautiful, married woman with a husband who adores her.  If this were a 20th opera this Cinderella-like transformation would also have been revealed as a fantasy and Tatiana would be revealed as a lonely unmarried woman still living in a fantasy world.  But this isn’t a bleak but realistic 20th century opera, this is a romantic 19th century opera.  And isn’t it every woman’s fantasy that some day the man who has spurned her will be VERY SORRY?  So what a revenge fantasy to move on with your life, marry someone handsome and wealthy who worships the ground that you walk on and then have the man who rejected your youthful crush show up and see you and fall in love with you.  Of course there is that moment of remembering your own love and wondering if maybe … ah, but no .. you must tell him that you can’t leave your husband.  And you sweep out of the room leaving him devastated.  

It was hard to feel sorry for Onegin there at the end.   But I don’t think we were supposed to.

I’m thinking maybe I should read the original Pushkin.

Here is a link to the trailer if you want to see it.