Friday, March 24, 2017

Eugene Onegin in Chicago

I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin when I was sixteen. Since then, I have seen as many productions of this beautiful opera as I could manage, professional as well as student productions. Nothing prepared me for how I would be swept away by the Chicago Lyric Opera’s performance, which I had the privilege of seeing last Friday, March 17th. 

It was a performance of rare completeness, where all the disparate elements of opera came together – the sets, the singing, the acting, the direction, the orchestral playing, and the musical direction – something that does not happen often, even in the greatest opera houses.

Originally created for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Michael Levine’s ingeniously simple sets utilizes the simplest elements and back lighting to evoke the necessary place and mood – a floor covered with autumn leaves and an orange glow in the background for the Larin’s country estate, a small rectangle bordered by chairs for Tatiana’s name day celebration in Act Two, and a larger rectangle, again bordered by chairs, for the ball at Prince Gremin’s palace in Act Three. In the two most dramatic scenes – the duel between Onegin and Lensky, and the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana, the set is left bare, with only back lighting to evoke the necessary mood. The black and white starkness of the costumes in the third act ball was also extremely evocative. I must also extend kudos to lighting designer Christine Binder for her beautiful work, and for her sensitivity to every element of the score. And the choreography by Serge Bennathan of the many dance sequences reminded us of what a great ballet composer Tchaikovsky is.

None of these would have mattered a bit if the dramatic and musical elements did not measure up. I was stunned by how wonderful all of the voices were, even those of the smaller parts. I was very moved by the singing of Dimitry Belosselskiy, who gave a touchingly simple, heartfelt and vocally stunning rendition of Prince Gremin’s celebrated aria. Tenor Keith Jameson delivered a musical performance of Monsieur Triquet aria, and managed to make the character more than just a caricature, or a comic relief. Director Robert Carsen did not make the all-too-common mistake of imposing his own view above that of the composer’s, but sensitively guiding the principals in serving the drama and the music.

Lyric Opera was indeed fortunate to have secured the services of the incredibly talented singers and actors for the four principal roles. There was no weak link in this quartet of young singers. Every one of the four principals has incredible musical and dramatic instincts. Tenor Charles Castronovo’s Lensky was appropriately ardent and sensitive. His performance of Lensky’s Act One aria was one of the most musical and passionate I have heard. In Lensky’s famous Act Two aria, the buildup and pacing of this dramatic aria was impeccable, and the final outpouring of emotion was almost too much to bear. From the young and impressionable girl in Act One to the beautiful and dignified Princess Gremin in Act Three, Ana María Martínez’s Tatiana was utterly convincing. She delivered a musically and dramatically impregnable Letter Aria, and with all the passion of the young girl desperately in love. It was as perfect a realization of this incredible aria as I have heard.

The great Mariusz Kwiecień lived up to his huge reputation and gave us one of the most believable Onegin I have seen. His reaction to Lensky’s death was heartbreaking, and his declaration of love in Act Three, where he echoed Tatiana’s aria in Act One, had a sense of utter desperation and heartbreak. Indeed, Martínez and Kwiecień gave the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana an almost unbearable intensity and, to use the word again, desperation.

Making his Lyric Opera debut, Argentinian conductor Alejo Pérez delivered a reading of this masterpiece that was both sensitive and dramatic.

What a privilege it was to witness such a perfect production on my very first visit to Chicago’s great Lyric Opera. Indeed, it will be a long time before I would be ready to see another production of this beautiful opera, because I cannot imagine another production that would match the musical and dramatic heights attained in this production. 

Patrick May
March 24, 2017

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