Chicago Opera Review: EUGENE ONEGIN (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on March 1, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Having brought seven new productions to Chicago this year, perhaps it was inevitable that Lyric Opera would bring an old one out of the woodwork. But what an excellent one to choose. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was last heard nearly ten years ago, so this would seem not a season too soon to bring it back. Although I didn’t see that production the first time, it still seems to be remarkably fresh. Part of that must be due to the combination of Michael Levine’s simple sets and traditional costumes with Christine Binder’s ambient lighting design.

Based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name, this somewhat tangled tale of untimely love in three acts centers on two sisters, the vivacious Olga and the bookish Tatiana, and their contrasting loves. Olga loves the poet Lensky, while Tatiana falls for his rakish friend Eugene Onegin. When Tatiana boldly declares her love, Onegin turns her down and soon begins flirting with her sister Olga. Enraged, Lensky challenges his friend to a duel and loses. Onegin then leaves the country for a few years only to return and fall in love with Tatiana. Only this time it is Tatiana who refuses him since she is now happily married to Prince Gremin.

Tchaikovsky adapted the novel himself along with Konstantin Shilovsky, composing some of the most beautiful music in all of Russian opera, from the lengthy Letter Scene of Act I to the exuberant polonaise of Act III. On the whole, Tchaikovsky’s score tends to the lyrical, hence his original designation of the opera: lyrical scenes. The vocal music is surprisingly simple, with few embellishments and high notes, relying heavily on the expressiveness of the soloists. Fortunately, Lyric has assembled a worthy cast.

Most recently seen in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the only principal from the earlier production to reprise his role. Kwiecień proves himself more than equal to the task in Onegin’s Act I aria, which he keeps wonderfully light and limpid. It seems appropriate that Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, who played alongside Kwiecień in Don Giovanni, should do so again as Tatiana. It is a strong role debut for Martínez, who has not yet distinguished herself in the Russian repertoire. She exquisitely captures Tatiana’s youthful love with her springy steps, bright-eyed smile, and singing that veers between the flighty and the tender, with many shades in between.

Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova makes her American operatic debut as Olga. Her spirited singing in Act I leaves us wanting more, but there is little for her to do beyond that early arioso. The other Russian in the cast, bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, doesn’t appear until Act III. Last seen as Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco, Belosselskiy shows off his more tender side as Prince Gremin, singing lyrically about his love for Tatiana. Beautifully occupying the opera’s middle voice range is American tenor Charles Castronovo as Lensky, whose dramatic Act II aria is a fitting final statement and seems far more climactic than his death in the duel that immediately follows.

Director Robert Carsen and revival director Paula Suozzi, unfortunately, lack imagination when it comes to moving this outstanding cast around on stage. Too often, they are left stationary when singing an aria, as Lensky and Prince Gremin do. Even the ballroom scenes seem stilted, especially the second act waltz. And the third act Polonaise is sorely disappointing, a lost opportunity for dancing, which is taken up instead with an odd transition directly from duel to ball where we watch Onegin getting dressed. The addition of four professional dancers is barely noticeable, though the dozens of supernumeraries and Lyric chorus members are.

Considering the current political climate and our president’s questionable relationship with Russia, it is timely to be reminded of an altogether different era, when Russia produced operas of superlative beauty. Yet, after the linguistic diversity of this season (three French operas, two German, two Italian, and one Russian), next season will return to a more typical Italian-oriented repertoire (four Italian, three French, one German). Eugene Onegin proves, however, that the Russian deserves a fuller hearing.

photos by Todd Rosenberg

Eugene Onegin
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on March 20, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank O March 1, 2017 at 8:40 pm

I found this to be a destruction of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. The choreography was infantile: The director and choreographer destructed the second act by playing the Act III opening waltz at the end of Act II while having the chorus and supernumeraries move chairs and dress Onegin. This was a mockery of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful opera. I simply did not understand the insane choices here.


Kate Caruso March 22, 2017 at 8:54 am

I have to respectfully disagree with Frank O – the transition from Act 2-Act 3 was a gamble, certainly, and I agree with the reviewer above who questioned the decision to effectively drop one of the two large-number dance scenes – moments this opera sorely needs. But the creative segue of this production gave back at the same time that it took away: it made for a more dynamic transition from Act 2 to Act 3, and poignantly juxtaposed the horrible violence of Act 2 with the gaudy, social scene in Act 3. Eugene Onegin was the tie and key to both, with this staging, and it gave a wordless window into the psychological state of Onegin. It was an intimacy with the titular character that we needed. Who on earth is Onegin? This mini-scene at least posed the question, even if it could not possibly answer it.
I agree that Lyric’s creative gambles have largely NOT paid off recently, and I understand Frank’s reluctance to praise a tactic that has more reliably disrespected the score (and the viewers) this season and last than adorned it (I’m looking at you, Figaro). But this particular moment had none of that loud disdain; it was tasteful, modest, etc. Moreover, it was a feature that added to the depth of the delivery, and it deserves acknowledgement. In a production that suffers a bit from a “stand and deliver” traditionalism, this was an imaginative choice that seemed modern while remaining conservative. Let’s keep open minds!


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