Dallas — Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin has everything that makes opera grand. Based on a poetic novel by Alexander Pushkin, there is the spectacle of a 19th century formal ball at the home of a Russian prince, two lovers who tragically miss in their timing, and even a pistols-at-dawn duel—all set to gorgeous music from start to finish. What’s not to love? It is on many a favorite list.
The Dallas Opera opened its 60th season with a stunning production of Onegin at the Winspear Opera House on Friday evening. There was the usual opening night folderol: a red carpeted entrance, formal dress, and a big ticket fancy dinner and post-opera party. But none of those ancillary events could rival what we saw on the stage: a near perfect production of Eugene Onegin.
Because of the huge cost of designing and building them, opera productions designed by one company are rented out and travel the world. This production was originally designed by Alexander Lisiyansky for Israeli Opera Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The Dallas Opera production is staged by French director Jean-Claude Auvray.
Most if the action takes place in a bleak forest of white birch tree trunks. Spaces are cleared for a few required set pieces, such as a bed to indicate Tatyana’s bedroom. One odd thing is that the piano that is only used in the very first scene moves around but never seems to make it off stage, even when it is snowing.
The trees vanish when the action moves to the palace of Prince Gremin. Leaded glass walls bring the elaborate greenhouse-like Russian winter gardens to mind. Maria Chiara Donato’s period-accurate costumes complete our immersion into Pushkin’s tragedy.
Here’s the plot, in short: Eugene Onegin inherits a place in the country and his friend Lensky introduces him to his finance, Olga, who lives in the next-door estate. Olga’s sister, who devours romantic novels, immediately is dazzled by the handsome Onegin. Impulsively, she writes him a letter pouring out her innocent young heart. He lets her down gently, but with a touch of arrogance.
At a party, Onegin decides to tease Lensky by flirting with Olga, but is surprised by his friend’s jealous rage, which elevates to a challenge for a duel. Lensky is killed and Onegin leaves town. The next time Onegin sees Tatyana, she is the elegant and much admired wife of Prince Gremin. Onegin realizes his error and begs Tatyana for another chance, but it is too late. Her life is set.
As Onegin, Andrei Bondarenko (my interview with him is here) brings a magnificent, huge and burnished baritone voice. It is easy to see why this young baritone is enjoying a major career. He was equally impressive last season in TDO’s production of another Tchaikovsky opera, Iolanta.
Bondarenko also brings a distinguished bearing and fine acting abilities to the role. He is coolly aloof and formal in the first act, but the façade that hides a passionate nature falls away in the last act as he throws himself at Tatyana’s feet.
Tatyana, beautifully sung by Svetlana Aksenova, also changes during the opera. Her Tatyana is reserved throughout. The required difference between the impressionable young country girl in the first act and the wife of a prince in the last act is subtle, but appropriately noticeable.
As her sister Olga, Kai Ruutel’s mezzo is different enough in timbre to make it easy for the audience to tell who sings what. She also captures Olga’s impetuous, fun-loving nature, offering more than vocal contrast to her serious sister.
As their mother, Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet offers yet another vocal sound to the mix. She comes from a different genre, namely Wagner, but her immense and flexible voice combined with her regal bearing makes her an excellent mother to these two very different girls.
Talk about a different sound: contralto Meredith Arwady's voice as the nurse is nothing short of astounding. It is deep and baritonial, but she uses it as though it were a light coloratura soprano. Quite remarkable.
Tenor Stephen Costello, a local favorite, does a good job as the mercurial Lensky. His aria before the duel is magnificent, full of regret but not overdone, as so often happens. His fondness to add a lower grace note to every high note he sings appears to be a permanent tic, but the note is quite glorious when he gets there. Russian speaking friends tell me that he does a passable job with this very difficult language. Mostly, they say, non-Russian speaking singers are unintelligible and they give Costello praise for his efforts.
Bass Mikhail Kazakov has a deep voice that descends to the low notes in the role with the same full sound be brings to higher notes. As an actor, he is the picture of royal dignity.
However, dignity is sadly missing in the performance of tenor Greg Fedderly as the entertainment for the ball. Vocally, he is fine but the way he is staged is only slightly more acceptable than his tasteless costume.
Dignity is not missing in the excellent performances of Musa Ngqungwana as Zaretsky and Brian Post as Captain Love. Cooky Ciapalone’s minimal and formal choreography is exactly what we picture at a 19th century royal ball in imperial Russia.
All of the above is in the hands of conductor Emmanuel Villaume. He is a better conductor every time I see him and he was terrific the first time. It is rare, very rare indeed, that major conductors with a worldwide career in symphony and opera continue to grow musically and technically. In fact, I am hard pressed to name even one, other than Villaume.
His baton technique is completely controlled, communicative, clear and expressive. But, one thing that sets him apart is his careful attention to the music between the singing, especially when the singing is conversational. Sometimes, this is little more than a few measures, but Villaume takes us from one thought to the next, or one character to the next, using the fragment of music to set up the next thought or statement.
The orchestra responded to his direction with a first-class performance on Friday.
Another complaint is that the non-intermission pauses for set changes are way too long. This is probably due to opening night snafus, and the alternative of more intermissions would make for a very long night. Better to sit in place for a while.
This is a golden opportunity for fans of this opera as well as those who have never seen it to experience a fine production of a gorgeous and dramatically vibrant opera with a top-shelf cast of performers.