BWW Review: WNO's Exquisite EUGENE ONEGIN at the Kennedy Center
With Russia consistently capturing Washington's attention, it seems fitting that an opera composed by the country's greatest composer, based upon one of its most fabled novels, makes a return to the Kennedy Center after a 30 year absence. And what a return it is.
Washington National Opera's (WNO) Eugene Onegin is exquisite! The entire evening soars like a dream with pitch-perfect performances led by the immaculate Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana. Both intimate and sweeping, delicate and bold, this production captures the infatuation of young love with the tempered wisdom of age and loss.
The opera is based on the classic Russian novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. Set in a backwater town in Russia, a young bookworm named Tatiana meets the cosmopolitan Onegin. After professing her love to him in a letter, she is rejected as he claims to not be one for marriage, yet alone love. The consequences of his declaration effect Onegin in a way he could have never imagined.
Eugene Onegin, despite the ad campaign for this production, is not overly tragic. Yes, Onegin's action and decision have some disastrous consequences, but when you put it into the perspective of the opera's early 1800s setting, that was life. The timelessness of Pushkin's story is how it captures falling in love, losing love, and the resiliency that it can lead to, as evidenced by Tatiana's trajectory.
Nechaeva makes a strong, and that is an understatement, WNO debut as Tatiana. Elegant, divine, and possessing a beautiful soprano voice, she is the heart of this production. Thanks to Michael Levine's atmospheric set design and Christine Binder's emotionally warm and welcoming lighting design, her Act I, Scene II aria where she professes her love for Onegin in a letter takes on a dream-like quality.
As if the production could not soar any higher, enter Igor Golovatenko as the titular character. Cool and calm, with deep internal rumblings, he and Nechaeva are perfectly matched as the fateful would-be couple. His commanding baritone is at its heartbreaking best in the final scene where Onegin and Tatiana's fate is finally rectified.
Setting in motion Onegin's fate is Lensky, portrayed in another powerful performance by Tenor Alexey Dolgov. His friend, and later the subject of his scorn, Lensky is a bookish character in love with Tatiana's sister. When that love is threatened by Onegin, his rapture commands action. Dolgov plays this perfectly, with his character's anger and torment seeping through every moment of Act II's climax.
Throughout the opera a series of secondary characters help to advance the story's themes of love. Mezzo-Soprano Victoria Livengood is Tatiana's nanny and confident, Filippyevna. The bond between her and Nechaeva radiates warmth, providing some of the opera's lighter moments.
Bass Eric Halfvarson plays Prince Gremlin, a character whose identity I'll leave undescribed, so as to not be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, though he doesn't appear until Act III, his Aria, combined with the beauty of Tchaikovsky lyrics is a poignant declaration of love. Easily one of the production's highpoints, and whose themes generated much applause from the audience. It's a small role, but a consequential one in it's message.
Robert Travino makes another strong WNO debut as the production's conductor. Tchaikovsky's score is quite majestic in the way it captures the range of emotions in Pushkin's story. Both lively and introspective, the score is remarkable for the subtleties it captures in every moment.
Now enough cannot be written about the production's design team. Levine's environmental set design is atmospherically sparse - capturing both the barren quality of Tatiana's home and grandeur of the society life that greets Onegin's later on. In Act I fall leaves, resplendent in warm reds, oranges, and yellows fill the stage. The celebration of a youthful fall transforms into the cold imperialism of adulthood when leaves are cleared away and the set's original egg-shell color is allowed to emit a coolness marking the passage of time.
Much was made at Saturday's opening that this was Eugene Onegin's first production at Washington National Opera in more than 30 years. Hopefully we won't have to wait that long for another production. For the bond created by the actors and the audience, the emotional intelligence of the creative team's designs, combined with the splendor of Tchaikovsky's score, make this a production not to be missed!
Performed in Russian with English subtitles
Runtime: Three hours with one intermission
Washington National Opera's Eugene Onegin runs thru March 29th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets please click here.
Photo: Anna Nechaeva. Credit: Scott Suchman.