San Francisco Opera 2022-23 Review: Eugene Onegin
A Disappointing Portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s Iconic WorkBy Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Cory Weaver)
San Francisco Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin” took audiences back in time to the Russia of Alexander Pushkin’s classic poem. Robert Carsen’s scenic rendering gave us a cross-section of the world as it was, with peasants and privileged, the drama of duels, balls, and bedrooms. Spread before the audience, in blush pink and dark blue, peachy yellow and grayish-white, we became witnesses to a time of pre-Soviet Russia before the revolution.
All the while, right beyond the doors of the War Memorial Opera House, were San Francisco’s bustling Van Ness Avenue, with buses, cars, and bicycles, and a protest over the Ukrainian-Russian war of today. Those who love Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev expected to sink into Tchaikovsky’s well-loved sonorous score and savor a world that no longer exists, along with some of its lyric emotions–youthful love, forever-style loyalty–but landing in either world was difficult, with the challenges of a war we can hardly influence toward peace or the mainly pale passion of the one on stage.
Narrative Perspective Flattens Drama
The sets were each a vignette of time, place, and circumstance—the land and its caretakers, the two women peeling vegetables and discussing the news, the bedroom interior where love is described, the ball where society fritters its energy, the duel where death reigns, and so on—grants a view and an opinion. With a raked stage and action so often set downstage, there were limits to observation across the board and from near and far. While thought-provoking, that choice diminished the story’s presentation. Using Tchaikowsky’s own treatment of Pushkin’s poem for the libretto already establishes more distance for today’s viewer, but the various European and American productions show how the story still inspires. The long-view stance in this San Francisco version, however, did not do that.
The choice of narrative perspective, coupled with the sets, kept dropping the dramatic temperature. It was like using the pluperfect tense: “Tatyana had loved Onegin in the fullness of her youth, but later on, she realized that her love would never be fulfilled.” Even in the famous letter-writing scene in Act one, when the quarter-moon failed to mark time’s passing by descending in the sky, we kept looking at the idea of time and thinking about it rather than being pulled into its dramatic fervor.
Russian soprano Eugenia Muravava sang Tatyana. The dark-haired Muravava portrayed the young Tatyana with an apt dream-like reticence. Her voice remained rich and sonorous, although she kept it more covered than passionate. More than not, she sang about her feelings rather than fully dramatizing them. Yes, she waltzed around the room, an excellent choice for action; however, the movement was more contrived than organic. Was this a consequence of emphasizing her dream-like nature and its introspective view rather than the dramatized one of the heart? Perhaps. Still, even when wounded by Onegin’s brush-off, she kept her feelings too close to her vest, especially for a young girl. In the end, however, when Onegin declared his love and pleaded with her to surrender to him, this vocal, as well as physical stance, worked. Grace and poise aptly covered her broken heart.
Onegin was sung by Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. He sang the role with a stiff-necked and imperious manner. He compelled us to ask how she could ever fall for him. Even before the infamous letter: What, him? Dressing him on stage right after killing his friend Lensky was well-executed. That it was down-stage emphasized the importance of his social conformity. In the ball scene, when he toyed with Olga, solidified his unappealing quality as a character, and all we hoped when the duel came, Lensky would be the winner, as crazy as that seemed. By Act four, however, not only had his feelings changed—the level of his emotion in particular—but his physical malleability. While his movement across the space still came across as awkward, the fact he could bend suggested he could break, be moved, and raise the emotional pitch. Here was a three-dimensional man, in fact.
American Evan LeRoy Johnson sang Lensky. Here we had a tenor full of ring, youthful energy, and vitality. There was intensity in the sense of loss embedded in the story and the score, and a glow that grew and spread across his actions. Vocally and physically, he was able to show a psyche so threatened he dueled his friend and died in the attempt. Pride? More likely, the inability to modify the intensity of his discovery that life was not controllable amid a storm of passion, or, perhaps, any other way. By the time his aria arrives, we were enraptured by his plaintive cri de coeur. He was certainly a breath of fresh air, conveying depth and genuine sorrow, while the vocal legato took us along with him.
Olga was sung by Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina. Her voice complemented her strong physical presence. From the outset, she sang with energy and youthful joie de vivre, especially in Act one. As sister to the introspective Tatyana, she provided an apt contrast and propelled the dramatic movement overall. In the ball scene, she even portrayed some of the petulant trivializing behavior that no doubt gave women a bad reputation in that society’s view.
Ronnita Miller, hailing from Florida, sang Filipyvena, Tatyana’s Nanny, with her lustrous mezzo voice. She complemented Tatyana well despite the conventional direction of servant/mistress, which limited vocal range and expression. The trap door’s ascending and descending, while perhaps historically accurate, drew attention away from more intimate and caring expression. We kept wondering if she would make a safe descent.
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sang Prince Gremin. His voice aimed high and fit the moving tale of love recovered, even as it showed considerable use.
The Chorus, under the direction of John Keene, was a welcome presence. Beginning off-stage, they created the amplitude Carson aimed for in his portrait of Mother Russia. Their full-throated singing was a welcome addition to the more restrained tone sustained throughout. If only that were so with their group dancing, which seemed more mechanical and contrived rather than as elegant or sprightly as it might have been—limited space and all. Even with the exquisite marvel of the Polonaise and the Waltz, we watched a more cliché than full-hearted dance.
The lighting, done by Christine Binder, remained one of the production’s highlights. The strong contrasts deepened more than mood; it became a quasi-tactile sensation.
The orchestra played under the baton of Vassilis Christopoulos from Athens, Greece. Unfortunately, the sumptuous and well-loved score failed to fly. Where was the rapturous Tchaikovsky? Only occasionally did it appear, and then with a sudden burst, like a firecracker, before it dissolved away. We missed the music throughout, despite the lyrical roll of the winds, the outstanding resonance of oboe and flute, and the lovely use of shepherd’s pipe at dawn. This was reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s interest in folk music and his gift of introducing varied instrumentation to expand his lyric tapestry. Both the quartet and lovely quintet came almost as a surprise in an opera where individual temperaments ruled, despite the Chorus and the layered sounds it added. It’s true, fire isn’t everything. But let’s not use it just to keep warm.
FATE. FATE. FATE. This is what Tchaikovsky was out to portray, the helplessness of our actions and our feelings in the face of it. Did the production offer that? Yes, and it was a sad commentary on the possibilities of our lives.
The afternoon was disappointing, and yet, I hummed the music all the way home.