Review: EUGENE ONEGIN Thrillingly Enchants at Dallas Symphony Orchestra

The long anticipated special engagement plays on April 1, 3, and 5.

By: Apr. 03, 2022
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Review: EUGENE ONEGIN Thrillingly Enchants at Dallas Symphony Orchestra The road to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's first full production of Tchaikovsky's EUGENE ONEGIN may have been as turbulent as the opera itself; what internationally renowned symphony isn't struggling to secure performers and mount productions in the ebb and flow of war and plague? But if there's anything one takes away from Tchaikovsky's works, it's that struggle often leads to transcendent beauty, and the same should be said of DSO's latest triumph. The near-perfect production runs April 1, 3, and 5, a strictly limited engagement that will be talked about for years to come.

Tchaikovsky took much of the material for EUGENE ONEGIN from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's verse novel of the same name, in some cases taking passages from Pushkin verbatim and setting them to music. The opera opens with friends Eugene (Etienne Dupuis) and Lensky (Pavol Breslik) visiting the country home of wealthy landowner Larina (Alexis Galindo) and her two daughters, Tatyana (Nicole Car) and Olga (Melody Wilson).

Her head either in the clouds or the pages of a sentimental romance, Tatyana falls in love with Eugene at first sight and composes a letter to him expressing her feelings. When Eugene discovers the letter, he tells Tatyana that he does not reciprocate her feelings and that he's not one to be tied down with love and romance. And yet, for the rest of the opera that spans the months and years following this initial encounter, Tatyana and Eugene find themselves drawn to one another again and again, with results both disastrous and inevitable.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in top form as always, is conducted by Fabio Luisi, who is renowned for his work in opera for reasons that become apparent the moment he raises his baton. Luisi leads the orchestra, the chorus, and the principals with a dramaturg's instinct for pacing and intensity, a perfect combination that allows him to emotionally complement the work of the singers without any danger of overpowering them. Joshua Habermann directs the Dallas Symphony Chorus to similar effect, though there seemed to be a slurring of consonants during some of the opera's faster numbers.

The real-life husband and wife couple of Car and Dupuis play their roles with such carefully considered nuance that audiences will find themselves torn on how to think of the opera's romantic entanglements. We are meant to root for Tatyana and Eugene, but--as the years pass--it becomes clear that people are never quite as lovable or despicable as they are in Tatyana's romance novels. Car sings with a haunting soprano, so rich and clear in tone that she entrances audiences from her very first note onstage. More impressive yet is how Car modulates her voice between moments of defiant power and distraught intimacy, an ability that more clearly conveys Tatyana's maturation over the course of the night. Dupuis makes the arrogant and self-centered Eugene as likable as possible, which is more a testament to Dupuis's talent than Tchaikovsky's libretto. The baritone sings Eugene's parts early in the opera with such precision that the establishment of his talent allows him to play with trembling and breaking his voice as Eugene rushes toward his inevitable conclusion with spectacular power. Additionally impressive, Dupuis fits his voice so effortlessly and naturally to the clashing consonants of the Russian language that I was surprised to see he wasn't from the region originally.

A review can only ever discuss so much in its limited space, so let me say now that every principal and soloist in the production astonishes, with some of the actors with the smallest roles receiving roaring ovations on opening night. Breslik's warm and enamoring tenor provides a perfect contrast and complement to Dupuis's work, and Melody Wilson gives her Olga a youthful brightness and energy, a feat made more impressive when one notices that she took over the role in the final moments of rehearsal when the intended performer was unable to join. Galindo and Chapa as mother and nursemaid, respectively, sing with a nostalgic airiness that contributes greatly to creating the welcoming atmosphere of the opera's opening scene. And while many basses may seek to shake the rafters in their performances, Brindley Sherratt's bass carries its power through its richness and warmth, a combination so profound that audiences will find it difficult to begrudge Tatyana's leaving Eugene for him.

The production is staged minimally by Alberto Triola, who makes great use of creating clear environments with the help of a few chairs, a bed, a bulletin board, and literal piles upon piles of books. Some moments are quite poetic and breathtaking, such as when the red ribbon that tied together Tatyana's letters to Eugene becomes the blood that (spoiler!) pours forth from Lensky's body following his loss in a duel. Another striking moment comes from Tatyana's many books create the boundaries of the dueling grounds where Eugene and Lensky meet for the final time. Other moments are a bit more puzzling, such as when a male dancer appeared onstage to act as a kind-of standin for Eugene as Tatyana composes her letters to him. It took so long to recognize what was happening that I briefly wondered if an understudy had been called in mid-performance. But, more often than not, the staging tells the story as simply, though not simplistically, as possible.

There's a notice on the DSO's website when patrons go to buy tickets for EUGENE ONEGIN justifying the decision to retain a piece by a Russian composer in their season when many companies have opted to cancel performances by Russian musicians and performers who have voiced support for the current war in Ukraine. The justification is not necessary (can we blame Tchaikovsky for not being a soothsayer?) but it does allow us to consider how art, especially art from foreign lands and voices, reflects universal emotions that touch us all. Besides, with its focus on the power of language, the necessity of community and family, and the danger of indulging stubborn and reckless fantasies, who's to say Tchaikovsky doesn't have a political message for our own times?


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