Seattle Opera’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is beautiful, in instrument, voice, and design, with a lusciously lyrical delivery that makes up for a rather uninspired plot. It runs through Saturday.
Compared to the compact, modern theatre I usually attend, Eugene Onegin is daunting: a three-act, three-hour opera, all in Russian, with a name whose pronunciation isn’t readily apparent. (On-YAY-ginn is where I ended up, but don’t quote me on that.)
Settling in, I was still undecided on a minor but important point. Do I fixate on the subtitles — annoyingly placed at the very top of the set, some 25 feet above the action — so I know what they’re saying; or do I enjoy the beauty of the music unvarnished, and watch the characters like a normal play? I ended up somewhere in the middle, focused on the stage and stealing glances at the lofty captions, which turned out to be the right choice. For the music and visuals are gorgeous, and the plot is slim at best; but the lovely lyrical verses are nonetheless worth following along.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is among the best-known classical composers, whose work is associated with ballets — The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty — far more than opera. Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera, is based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin and retains much of his verse.
Onegin tells of Tatyana’s unrequited love for the title character, and Onegin’s eventual life of regrets (scorning her and killing his best friend, among them). It doesn’t take much to follow the story, for the opera is disappointingly light (and trite) on plot, coupled with minimal character development. The emotional spark among various characters is inconsistent, and occasionally imperceptible. The most palpable connection is the one that’s snuffed out, literally — that between Onegin and his best friend, the poet Lensky. It’s never a stated point, but to imagine that the real drama may instead have been a taboo man-quarrel bubbling under the heteronormative surface, the exaggerated passions and jealousy — which otherwise seem to erupt out of nowhere — start to make a lot more sense.
That could have something to do with the acting. Onegin (Michael Adams, who alternates with John Moore) and his friend Lensky (Colin Ainsworth) played off each other beautifully, and their love for one another felt like the truest emotion in the show. My only gasp of emotion responsive to the stage — as opposed to the music, which is an emotional trip in itself — was when the two embraced, with guns in their hands. It’s an astonishing moment, an intertwining of love and warfare, that pierces the air of ego-fueled stupidity around it. Then, the moment is gone.
Tatyana, played beautifully by Marina Costa-Jackson (who alternates with Marjukka Tepponen) emits a gorgeous sense of longing and purpose. But the character’s pining for Onegin is hard to connect with, for the two don’t appear to share anything more than perhaps a passing crush; her obsession doesn’t resonate. That, and for Tatyana — along with her family, chiefly her sister Olga (Melody WIlson) and nurse Filipevna (Meredith Arwady) — we want much more than a jerk like Onegin. And then there’s the age difference issue, which I won’t tread too much into other than to note that her character seems like a young teenager, and he a man. It doesn’t get any better with her later love interest.
With an imposing scenic design by Erhard Rom, lush costume design by Isabella Bywater, and moody lighting design by Robert Wierzel, it’s a gorgeous show to watch. They tell the story, too, as the added visual elements of scenic and character — the walls close in and open up, suggesting confinement and possibility; the two leads are portrayed alongside as their elder selves, who look on but never speak — gives a depth of effect and reflection. And though the family house is fanciful, the tundra landscape behind is so bleak. Perhaps Tatyana cares not truly for the flighty Onegin, as she frets with her dutiful nurse; perhaps she just wants someone, anyone, to take her away.
But the biggest sensation is in the ears, of course, and it’s a delight. Soloists ring out powerfully, harmonies come together beautifully; and the baritone of David Leigh (as Tatyana’s new love) is a clear crowd favorite. Tchaikovsky’s composition is dramatic, robust, and many-layered, and the orchestra carries it masterfully: big, loud, exciting, but tight. Conductor Aleksandar Markovic pops up at several points to greet the crowd amicably, gleefully, before getting back to business. It’s a score I could listen to all day.
As light as the plot is, Onegin does have a story to tell. Its story is the damage the fragile male ego hath wrought. And, less tangibly, it’s a story of foregoing the romantic, the dreamy, in favor of the practical — or as the lyrics put it, of giving up French to speak Russian.
Heaven gives us habit in place of happiness. The takeaway might be to pursue just the opposite.
The verdict: recommended, even to the opera-shy.
Good To Know
If you go: Make a treat of it! Going to the opera is a treat anyway, so might as well go all-out. My guest and I arrived over an hour early, had a leisurely brunch at the Prelude restaurant on the first level, and advance-ordered crème brûlée and cake for intermission, at which it awaited us invitingly at our table (!!). We had plenty of time to enjoy and head back to our seats; and that unexpected break-away helped a three-hour show feel more like a vacation than a slog.
Not sure about this whole opera thing? Look to the wonders of technology to help find out. Look up Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on Spotify. I suggest Letter scene — play it all the way through, on decent speakers. The soaring vocals and dramatic, moody instrumental undercurrents in the 13-minute track should carry you away; and might make you mourn, rejoice, or both while they’re at it. If that teaser captivates you, you’ll love the live show.
Next up for Seattle Opera is Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, February 22 through March 7, with numerous events around town (at Northwest African American Museum, McCaw Hall, and others) in conjunction with the run.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Seattle Opera) runs through 1/25 at McCaw Hall, at the Seattle Center. Ticket prices vary; showtimes and info here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: several discount options available, both in advance and same-day; see info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.