Most "national" poems are bloodthirsty affairs. The Iliad? Wholesale slaughter. The Aeneid? Survivors of the preceding wholesale slaughter book a cruise and launch some slaughter of their own. The Chanson du Roland? Slaughter, with a big climactic horn solo. Beowulf? Monsters; mead; more slaughter. But ah! the Russians! Bless them, the Russians' national poem is Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, a rambling, episodic, Byronic tragicomedy of manners with only one pointless death in it.
Los Angeles Opera has opened its 2011-2012 season with a production of Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Onegin in which the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the orchestra and chorus are well above average.
Tchaikovsky co-wrote his own libretto for Onegin, jettisoning much of Pushkin's wit and a good deal of subsidiary structure in order to focus on the four key sequences in the plot. In Act I, we meet the Larina sisters living on their family's estate in the Russian countryside: Olga the lovely flighty one and Tatiana the lovely pensive-romantic one. Olga's suitor/beloved, the poet Lensky, introduces them to his great good friend, and their new country neighbor, Eugene Onegin. Tatiana is pierced to the quick with love for the brooding new fellow in town and rashly pours out her heart to him in a letter. He spurns her more or less politely, but with cold firmness. In Act II, Onegin attends a great party on the estate for Tatiana's name day. To soothe his ennui, Onegin compounds his callous lack of concern for Tatiana by intermeddling between Olga and Lensky, ultimately driving Lensky to demand satisfaction and a duel. The two friends meet in the snowy woods the following morning and Onegin shoots the poet dead. Wracked with guilt and still utterly bored with most everything, Onegin spends the interval between acts II and III traveling abroad. He returns after several years to St. Petersburg where, at yet another ball, he espies the beautiful and inspiring young wife of his relative Prince Gremin. Surprise! It's Tatiana. The scales fall from Onegin's jaded eyes and he sees what he has missed. He declares his love and begs Tatiana to forgive and reciprocate. Although she confesses that she still loves him, Tatiana too is firm: she will be true to her husband and the life she has found with him, even if it is a life of routine. Onegin must go and never trouble her again. She leaves him as do we: alone and miserable, and likely still bored to tears.
Strong emotion rules the day in Tchaikovsky's Onegin, and nowhere is that more true than in the orchestral writing. It gushes, it mopes, it rollicks, it yearns, it simmers, it despairs. The LA Opera orchestra under James Conlon goes wherever the composer takes it, lavishly but never goopily.
Among the principals, this production is dominated by the two sisters, particularly Oksana Dyka as Tatiana. Dyka sings thrillingly, particularly in her extended monologue as she crafts her fatal letter to Onegin. She is a model of noble self-abnegation as she sends Onegin packing, rounding off a performance that is enough in itself to justify the evening. As the more bubbly and unfettered Olga, Ekaterina Smenchuk sparkles and beams. It is a pity that neither Pushkin nor Tchaikovsky returns to Olga after Lensky issues his ill considered challenge.
The character of Onegin is slightly more sympathetic and three-dimensional in Pushkin than he is in Tchaikovsky. Until he blooms in his misery in his final meeting with Tatiana, Tchaikovsky's Onegin spends nearly all of his time sulking and declaring how tedious it all is. While he comes to life in earnest as the opera concludes, through most of this production Dalibor Jenis is only called upon to stalk about with the posture and demeanor (and apparently the tailor and hairstylist) of Disney's Beast. He makes all that he can of what Tchaikovsky gives him, but one senses the composer preferred almost every other character to his protagonist.
This production is an import originally mounted at Covent Garden, and comes with its share of eccentric design choices. Midway upstage, a shallow waterway runs from one side to the other, to be crossed by wading or on small bridges. In Act I, splashing about in it is how Olga and Tatiana remind us that they are Young and Full of Life. In Act III, it freezes and becomes a pathway for skaters. On several occasions, it just gets in the way, particularly when the very large chorus joins the cast downstage for Tatiana's name day party.
Behind the water hazard, a rolling hillside beckons, green and lush in Act I, snowbound in th wintry second half. The entire scene is framed by, well, frames. On occasion, the characters are called upon to pause, or move very slowly, toward the rear where, with the help of a very supple lighting scheme, we are reminded of Millet or of Casper David Friedrich.
Onegin is not a perfect opera, but its weaknesses are not great and are largely dramatic rather than musical. There are long stretches of unapologetically gorgeous Romanticism throughout the score, and the players and singers in this production make it all worth hearing. The abundant snow in this production is bracingly refreshing to gaze upon at the end of a hot, late summer day in Southern California.
Hop in the troika: three performances remain through October 9.
Photos: Robert Millard, used by kind permission of Los Angeles Opera.