Review: ‘Eugene Onegin’ at Washington National Opera

Of all the grand tear-jerkers, those epic romances that make you want to tear your heart out and roast it on the barbecue, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin stands out. Packed with beautiful melodies, misprized love, a fatal duel between lifelong friends, gorgeous dance numbers, and an evocation of Russian folk life (back when it wasn’t the done thing), this opera continues to pack houses and draw the world’s most talented artists.

Igor Golovatenko makes his US debut as Eugene Onegin in WNO's production. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Igor Golovatenko makes his US debut as Eugene Onegin in WNO’s production. Photo by Scott Suchman.

For the month of March, this beautiful juggernaut of a show has touched down with the Washington National Opera. A revival of Robert Carsen’s Canadian Opera Company production, first staged at the Met, director Peter McClintock has created a unique vision for this Russian classic. By turns breathtakingly beautiful and frustrating, the voices are strong and the visual elements at times breath-taking; there are difficulties, however, with the modernist approach which take something away from one’s full enjoyment of Tchaikovsky’s work.

Drawn from an epic poem by Russia’s first great national poet, Alexander Pushkin, the opera traces the story of young love in the provinces, and the tragedy that comes of jealousy and overweening pride. Onegin, the title character, is proudly aloof and when a young neighbor Tatiana confesses her love for him, he coldly dismisses her.

Because local gossip has already made them an item, Onegin proceeds to flirt at a party with his best friend Lenski’s fiancée, Olga—Tatiana’s younger sister. The flirtation, as expected, creates even more grist for the brutal gossip mill and leads to Lenski challenging Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lenski, and in his guilt roams the world aimlessly, unable to find peace of mind. Within a few years, he finds himself in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, where he encounters a now-married Tatiana. Her husband, an old military officer named Gremin, sings the praises of an October-May romance, and Onegin realizes too late the mistake he made in spurning her all those years ago.

Michael Levine offers a curious combination of lush, period costumes set off by a stark, modernist set. The transition from provincial estate to countryside to big city is marked brilliantly by the dresses and suits on display, and the bare walls and raked stage serve to heighten the costumes’ colors and textures. Christina A. Bender’s lighting designs, moreover, are exquisitely chosen and timed; when combined with a gauze screen downstage, her color sequence for Lenski and Onegin’s duel at dawn simply takes your breath away.

Tatiana (Anna Nechaeva) sings of love in WNO's production of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tatiana (Anna Nechaeva) sings of love in WNO’s production of ‘Eugene Onegin.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Igor Golovatenko assumes the role of Onegin with relish; in some way a thankless task, as he is a classic romantic anti-hero, he deftly manages the young man’s transition from disdain to profound regret. Anna Nechaeva’s Tatiana is glorious, with the recklessness of young love fully on display; with the fiery leaves of Autumn thick on the ground, when Nechaeva sings Tatiana’s immortal love aria for Onegin she gets to act out her impulsiveness, rolling and flinging leaves to show the conflict of joy and dread she feels. And as Lenski, Alexey Dolgov stops the show with his famous meditation of love lost, and a life cut short; as framed by Levine and Bender’s work, you would have to be made of stone to watch Dolgov’s performance without tears.

The cast is uniformly strong; Lindsay Ammann makes a charming splash as Tatiana’s sister Olga, while Joshua Blue’s turn as the French tutor Monsieur Triquet is a delightful treat (his wig, too, crafted by David C. Zimmerman, is priceless). And no performance of Onegin is complete without a fine turn by Gremin—performed here impeccably by Eric Halfvarson. Gremin, the officer who marries Tatiana, stops the show with a deeply-felt paean to love across the generations; there can be no doubt, given Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous musical setting for Gremin’s aria, whose side he is on as the opera closes.

As wonderful as all of this is, there are a few aspects to the production that rankle. The WNO promises “majestic ballroom scenes” here, but the decision to stage two balls on a stage pitched at a distinct, downhill angle creates serious problems.

Crammed with as many chorus members as possible, and packed in even tighter by chairs set in a tight square, it is simply impossible for the ensemble to dance. As a result, one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous waltzes is reduced to little more than a glorified Texas Two-Step, as the chorus jostles and bumps into each other in an artificially tiny space. If the goal is to evoke small-town claustrophobia, point taken; but McClintock has sacrificed what would have been one of the opera’s most graceful visual events.

Eugene Onegin baritone Igor Golovatenko comtemplates life's decisions in WNO's production. Photo by Scott Suchman.
‘Eugene Onegin’ baritone Igor Golovatenko contemplates life’s decisions in WNO’s production. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Hiring a pair of trained dancers for the St. Petersburg sequence, to interpret as opposed to dance the music, only reminds me what was lost. The choreography for this last sequence by Serge Bennethan is exuberant and fun to watch, but the fact that only two get to let loose like this is its own small tragedy. It’s an example of what happens when realism and modernism attempt to share the same stage; the results can be graceful by turns, but also confusing and disappointing as the expectations for one or the other style are stunted.

There is also a moment of striking modernity as the opera nears its close; Onegin’s final confession of his love for Tatiana is punctuated by a darkened stage and Golovatenko standing in front of a footlight, projecting his tall shadow onto the back wall. The evocation of Onegin as a specter is quite apt—even the chairs he stands between take on the aspect of tombstones—but the scale of the projection effectively cuts off the bulk of his shadow for the audience. Even in the orchestra, even on the aisle (where I sat), the back-shadow is out of proportion and impossible to take in as intended.

Robert Trevino led the orchestra well, and after an initial sequence in which the musicians drowned out the voices he settled in for some memorable instrumental passages. The run of Eugene Onegin promises to be a memorable one as well, with dyed-in-the-wool romantics swooning to every note. It has its quirks, but this production is stellar indeed.

Running Time: 3 hours with one intermission.

Eugene Onegin by the Washington National Opera plays through March 19, 2019, at the Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.