San Francisco Opera Review 2022-23: Eugene Onegin
(Credit: Cory Weaver)
San Francisco Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin” took audiences back to the Russia of Alexander Pushkin’s classic poem. Robert Carsen’s stage direction gave us a world cup as it was, with peasants and privileged people, the drama of duels, balls and chambers. Spread out before the audience, in powder pink and dark blue, peach yellow and greyish white, we became witnesses to an era of pre-Soviet Russia before the revolution.
All the while, just beyond the gates of the War Memorial Opera House was San Francisco’s bustling Van Ness Avenue, with buses, cars and bicycles, and a protest against the Ukrainian-Russian War of today. Those who love Chekhov, Tolstoy and Turgenev expected to delve into Tchaikovsky’s beloved sound score and savor a world that no longer exists, along with some of his lyrical emotions – youthful love, forever faithfulness – but land in one or the other world was difficult, with the stakes of a war that can hardly be oriented towards peace or the rather pale passion of whoever is on stage.
Narrative perspective smooths out the drama
The sets were each a vignette of time, place and circumstance – the earth and its guardians, the two women peeling vegetables and discussing current affairs, the interior of the bedroom where love is depicted, the ball where society wastes its energy, the duel where death reigns, and so on – grants a view and an opinion. With a scene raked and action so often staged, there were limits to observation at all levels and near and far. While stimulating, this choice diminished the presentation of the story. The use of Tchaikowsky’s own treatment of Pushkin’s poem for the libretto already establishes more distance for today’s viewer, but the various European and American productions show how the story still inspires. The long-term position in this version of San Francisco, however, did not do that.
The choice of the narrative perspective, coupled with the sets, constantly lowered the dramatic temperature. It was like using the pluperfect: “Tatiana had loved Onegin in the fullness of her youth, but later realized that her love would never come true. Even in the famous letter-writing scene in Act One, when the quarter moon failed to mark the passage of time as it descended into the sky, we kept looking at the idea of time and thinking about it. rather than being swept up in its dramatic fervor.
Russian soprano Eugenia Muravava sang Tatyana. Dark-haired Muravava portrayed young Tatyana with a dreamlike reluctance. Her voice remained rich and resonant, though she kept it more covered than impassioned. More than not, she sang about her feelings rather than completely dramatizing them. Yes, she waltzed around the room, a great choice for action; however, the movement was more artificial than organic. Was it the consequence of highlighting his dreamlike nature and his introspective gaze rather than the dramatized one of the heart? Maybe. Yet even hurt by Onegin’s rejection, she kept her feelings too close to her waistcoat, especially for a young girl. In the end, however, when Onegin declared his love and begged her to surrender to him, this vocal position, as well as physical, worked. Grace and poise aptly covered his broken heart.
Onegin was sung by Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. He sang the role in a stiff and imperious manner. He made us wonder how she could fall in love with him. Even before the infamous letter: What, him? Dressing him up on stage right after killing his friend Lensky was well executed. The fact that it was indented underscored the importance of its social conformity. In the prom scene, when he played with Olga, solidified his unattractive quality as a character, and whatever we hoped for when the duel came, Lensky would be the winner, crazy as that sounds. By act four, however, not only had his feelings changed—the level of his emotion in particular—but his physical malleability. While his movement through space always seemed awkward, the fact that he could bend suggested he could break, be moved, and raise the emotional tone. Here is a three-dimensional man, in fact.
American Evan LeRoy Johnson sang Lensky. Here we had a tenor full of ringing, youthful energy and vitality. There was an intensity to the sense of loss embedded in the story and the score, and a glow that grew and spread through his actions. Vocally and physically, he was able to show such a threatened psyche that he dueled his friend and died in the attempt. Pride? More likely, the inability to alter the intensity of his discovery that life was uncontrollable in the midst of a storm of passion, or, perhaps, in any other way. By the time her tune arrives, we were thrilled by her plaintive heart cry. He was certainly a breath of fresh air, conveying depth and genuine sadness, as the vocal legato took us with him.
Olga was performed by Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina. His voice complemented his strong physical presence. From the start, she sings with energy and a youthful joie de vivre, especially in the first act. As a sister to the introspective Tatyana, she provided appropriate contrast and propelled the dramatic movement as a whole. In the prom scene, she even portrayed some of the petulant trivialization behaviors that have undoubtedly given women a bad name in the eyes of this society.
Florida native Ronnita Miller sang Filipyvena, Tatyana’s nanny, with her brilliant mezzo voice. She complemented Tatyana well despite the conventional servant/mistress direction, which limited vocal range and expression. The ascent and descent of the hatch, while perhaps historically accurate, has diverted attention from a more intimate and benevolent expression. We kept wondering if she would make a safe descent.
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang Prince Gremin. His voice aimed high and matched the moving tale of found love, even as it showed considerable utility.
The Choir, under the direction of John Keene, was a welcome presence. By starting offstage, they created the amplitude that Carson sought in his portrayal of Mother Russia. Their full-throated singing was a welcome addition to the more restrained tone sustained throughout. If only that was the case with their group dance, which seemed more mechanical and contrived rather than as elegant or playful as it could have been – limited space and all. Even with the exquisite wonder of the Polonaise and the Valse, we witnessed a dance that was more cliché than exciting.
The lighting, directed by Christine Binder, remained one of the highlights of the production. The strong contrasts deepened more than the mood; it became an almost tactile sensation.
The orchestra performed under the direction of Vassilis Christopoulos from Athens, Greece. Unfortunately, the lavish and beloved score failed to fly. Where was the lovely Tchaikovsky? It appeared only occasionally, then with a sudden burst, like a firecracker, before dissolving. We missed the music throughout, despite the lyrical roll of the winds, the exceptional resonance of the oboe and flute, and the beautiful use of the shepherd’s flute at dawn. This was reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s interest in folk music and his gift for introducing varied instrumentation to expand his lyrical tapestry. The quartet and charming quintet were almost a surprise in an opera where individual temperaments ruled, despite the chorus and layered sounds it added. It’s true, fire isn’t everything. But let’s not just use it to keep warm.
SPELL. SPELL. SPELL. This is what Tchaikovsky wanted to depict, the powerlessness of our actions and our feelings in the face of them. Did the production offer this? Yes, and that was a sad commentary on the possibilities of our lives.
It was a disappointing afternoon, yet I hummed the music all the way home.