The wait of thirty years came to an end Saturday night when Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin returned to Washington in a spare yet stunningly beautiful production. The minimalist ‘box’ set became a canvas for color and light to carry the audience not only through the hours of a day and memories shared in autumnal display but one where the colors seemed to vibrate, emanating a haunted, melancholic spirituality, not unlike the canvases of Rothko. The tone of melancholy suffused every aspect of the work, a paean to lost romantic dreams of youth and heroic culture, by that I mean that other Russia.
Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, on which the opera is based, was published between 1825-1832 in popular serial form, much like the works of our own popular English-language Dickens. But the writer’s stature stands higher in his country for he is considered the master of Russian poetry. His verse-lines for Eugene Onegin, divided into 14-line stanzas, might be compared more closely to Shakespeare’s sonnets. (And for those who like to keep score on identity politics, the writer was of African descent. His great-grandfather was in fact a slave, who later became a general under Peter the Great.)
Tchaikovsky, they say, hesitated before taking on the task of transforming this monumental novel into an opera. But he leapt in, finally, even serving as his own librettist. He stayed close enough to the original “architect” and captured, to my mind, two great Russian archetypes: the worldly and educated man who, without drive or purpose, succumbs to languishing ennui (in short what has been termed by Russians as “the superfluous man”) and the romantic and “good feminine,” considered the soul of Russia.
It’s not easy to fulfill on stage all the expectations of these two Russian archetypes. But thanks in part to some special eagle scouting by Colin Brush, who caught her in Berlin singing the lead role in Manon Lescaut, Washington National Opera did indeed “discover” a Tatiana for our times in the ravishing Anna Nechaeva, whose voice is as expressive and lovely as her form. She is the real deal, a singing-actress of keenly honed talent and stage presence, who at one moment timidly darts across the stage like a startled bird, then buoyantly leaps up onto a bed like a jubilant child. She holds nothing back in her portrayal of youthful warmth and romantic fervor, then makes the whole auditorium feel her anguish and humiliation at the hands of a careless man. But she endures and keeps a loving heart so that at the end she gains a noble dignity.
I had expected the soprano to possess a powerful but thrown-back vocal placement and “heavy” sound as many Russian singers do. Instead, though there are delicious dark notes and depth in that voice, it is balanced with a forward placement that keeps everything bright and every note spinning out seemingly effortlessly.
In “The Letter” aria, Nechaeva navigates the sudden emotional and musical changes, committing herself to every musical and dramatic moment and all sourced from the character’s thoughts. She starts, hesitating, then chases mentally a glimmer of love but soon moves into full throttle, then commits, willing to throw herself recklessly at Onegin to save her helpless, romantic heart. At one point, she runs headlong around the stage, scooping up leaves only to fling them high into the air (and they scatter behind her,) then throws herself to the ground and rolls down the steeply raked stage, blanketed in autumn leaves. Overcome by her own exertions and realizing such passion is dangerous, she dives down into smoky dark notes of intense doubt and melancholy, accessing a strong mezzo sound.
closes March 29, 2019
Details and tickets
If Nechaeva embodies the eternal (Russian) feminine, then she is well-matched by Igor Golovatenko as Onegin. These stars from the Bolshoi Opera are both making their U.S. and WNO debuts in this quintessential Russian masterpiece, but they give us natural-styled performances that speak to the universal.
Golovatenko mines the brand of melancholy that comes from having too much and no purpose or moral chart to energize himself, turning into a cynical cad. Golovatenko embodies the character totally, with his commanding presence conveying someone entitled and therefore used to getting his own way. In short, we all recognize in the type: a modern western (white) man of means.
Golovatenko is not afraid of arousing antipathy, and in his first aria, his voice can be icy as he dallies with a young girl’s heart then humiliating and schooling Tatiana on her lack of restraint. He also flirts with Tatiana’s sister Olga out of sheer boredom, an urban rake at a country dance with nothing better to do.
But there are moments of real pathos. When he becomes aware that his transgressions with Olga have pushed things too far, and facing losing his best friend in a duel over the situation, he and Lensky hesitate, try to retrace their steps. In a short duet Golovatenko and Alexey Dolgov (Lensky) masterfully match sound for sound and emotional heart to heart in one of the most tender moments of the production. The baritone pulls out all the steps in the final scene when he realizes he has squandered his life and chance at love. His emotional commitment and powerful sound makes for a climactic last duet with Nechaeva.
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The other singers achieve moments to round out the themes of regret, lost youth, and the bittersweet rise of melancholy looking back at the crossroads of life. Elena Zaremba, as Olga’s and Tatiana’s mother, and Victoria Livengood, as the girls’ old nurse and companion to Madame Larina, set just the right feeling in the first scene as they prepare a harvest festival and swap stories of romantic urgings of their youth. Livengood’s assured performance is delicious, and their effective physicality and vocal harmonizing of two women who have grown old together make for a compelling duet.
Dolgov starts out perhaps more tentatively than one would wish in this tenor role. But certainly when we see him interact with his Olga, we easily believe these are two young adults have known each other since childhood in their physical teasing and closeness. He also carries us through his startling transformation to a man obsessed and transformed into irrational rage by jealousy. By the time, he sings his big aria, drowning in the hazy blue world created by lights and scrim, he clearly is staring down the barrel of his own death. With “Kuda, kuda, vy udalilis,” Dolgov surges vocally and emotionally and he breaks open our hearts, as we recognize the tragedy of a man who is giving up on life before he’s even tasted fully its fruits.
Lindsay Ammann plays Olga and brings a bright sound and energy to the stage, the antithesis of the others’ drapings of melancholia. She portrays Olga’s light-hearted playfulness, and reveals a character almost as careless as Onegin. Olga is the flip-side of him: she expresses her shallowness by feverish activity to be the life of the party and flitting from thing to thing to satiate her appetites. I’m sad Tchaikovsky dropped the character after the fiancé has been killed in a duel. I would have liked to know how the character (and this lovely singer) handled the situation and the maturing process.
Joshua Blue and Joshua Conyers, both from WNO’s Cafritz-Domingo Young Artists program, made standout cameos, Blue doing able service as the simpering red-haired French dandy who sings a musical tribute to Tatiana, and Conyers cutting a strong stage figure with a rich deep voice as the Captain.
The Washington National Chorus gave us that rich deep sound associated with Russian and other eastern European choral work, a totally satisfying experience, especially strong in the bass notes. However, the richest bass work of the evening was without question Prince Gremin as sung by Eric Halfvarson in an inspiring characterization of an old man, grateful to have found love in his twilight years, was most affecting.
Peter McClintock has re-staged the production for Washington, originally directed by Robert Carson in 1997, and he has made it feel fresh – almost – throughout.
Some choices in the staging did create some curious bumps in the action. The choreography was lackluster and mostly consisted of generalized group movement for the chorus. (We got the picture of sweeping out leaves to create a rink long before we “got the picture.”) Then there was the abrupt shock ‘spread eagle’ flip in the featured ballroom partner dancing in otherwise a scene of unremarkable waltzing. Most disappointing and tedious was using an entire orchestral music to do a costume change on stage for Onegin with the simultaneous set up of a room full of chairs by valets and footmen. It was like watching wallpaper peel or a bad episode of “background mores” in Downton Abbey.
I have mentioned how stunning I found Christine Binder’s lighting. Also highly prized were the costumes by Michael Levine, who also designed the “box” set. The movement from monochromatic peasant clothing into the detail of the period ballgowns made for strong stage pictures. The Russian influence on Victorian age fashion made the ruffles, flounces and voluminous crinolines always just a tad droopy and sad, as if appropriately created far away from the center of (western Europe) fashion. This set off remarkably well the last “public” entrance of Tatiana, who commanded the stage in her midnight-blue velvet dress, showing she had matured in means, taste and worldliness.
I had expected to be wowed by Robert Trevino as conductor. He had worked well with the orchestra to bring out the colors of the individual instruments in Tchaikovsky’s score and their interplay with the singers and gave us the dynamics Tchaikovsky’s music deserves. I was not swept away, however, by what I hoped would be the music’s swelling romanticism. Perhaps even there were some missteps and distractions. Or, perhaps this was not his samovar cup of tea.
Eugene Onegin. Music and Libretto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin. Conducted by Robert Trevino. Stage Direction by Peter McClintock. Set and Costumes designed by Michael Levine. Lighting designed by Christine A. Binder. Hair and make-up designed by David C Zimmerman. Choreography by Serge Bennathan. With Anna Nechaeva, Lindsay Ammann, Elena Zaremba, Victoria Livengood, Alexey Dolgov, Igor Golovatenko, Samuel J. Weiser, Joshua Blue, Joshua Conyers, Eric Halfvarson and the Washington National Opera Chorus, Dancers, and Orchestra. A Canadian Company production, presented at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Couldn’t disagree more. I’m wondering if we even saw the same show. They should rename it Eugene Snoreagin. Take nothing away from the cast, who did their best with what they were given, but this production is a sleepy plot set to lovely music (yawn).
Georgette Dorn says
Enjoyed this excellent review of a truly great production. Galbraith hit it just right.
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