Seattle Opera 2019-20 Review: Eugene Onegin
Marjukka Tepponen & John Moore Make Tchaikovsky’s Lush Score Soar Over a Visually Muted ProductionBy John Carroll
(Photo Credit: Sunny Martini / Seattle Opera)
Seattle Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” has travelled around, being co-owned by regional opera companies in Kansas City, Honolulu, Detroit, Atlanta, and Seattle, with costumes rented from Santa Fe Opera.
And while it was musically and emotionally rewarded, the mounting on January 11 was visually staid.
Roads Not Taken
For Tchaikovsky’s opera of romantic misfortune, Associate Director Stephanie Havey and Director Tomer Zvulun glommed on to an overarching theme that the journey we take in life is a consequence of our choices, as in Robert Frost’s famed road not taken. It’s a valid point of view since at the end of the opera every leading character has landed on an unwelcome path due to decisions they made earlier in the story.
To try to convey this, the directors chose a heavy-handed staging conceit: at the beginning and end of major scenes, an elderly version of either Tatyana or Onegin appeared (dressed in identical costumes as their younger selves but with grey hair and old age make-up) and stood for a few moments in silence holding a letter with an aura of regret. They never appeared together — the mature Tatyana showed up in the first half of the work, then the older Onegin stood alone in the second half of the story as the narrative focus shifted to him.
The staging device underlined this notion of regret and the loneliness we fall into later in life; but it lacked impact, partly because it didn’t have a climax at the end of the opera. The older couple were inexplicably nowhere to be seen after the monumental final duet.
Another unexpected staging choice to use the chorus in surrealistic ways was odd. The peasants and laborers in Act One interacted naturally and discreetly, with bits of modest chatter and light folk dancing to celebrate the harvest. However, in Act Two the chorus entered for Tatyana’s name day party and immediately began to directly accuse and physically harass Onegin during their entire opening “Vot tak syurpriz!” section.
Later in this scene, and again in the Act Three ball, the chorus suddenly froze in place mid-dance while characters sang an aside. Both effects were confusing and jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the staging.
Though the scenic design by Erhard Rom conveyed an appropriately romantic vision of the desolate Russian landscape with oversized sheer white curtains billowing over painted backdrops of the snow-dappled steppes, it was extremely monochromatic. The color palette overemphasized shades of grey, beige, and taupe, with only a few dabs of red or blue on some costumes to break the visual monotony.
Similarly, the same primary set pieces were used from scene to scene; the country house of Act One became Prince Gremin’s palace in Act Three with only the addition of a few white columns, a chandelier, and a different settee.More visual variety, contrast, and depth of color across the long evening would have been appreciated.
Pure Sunlight In Your Ears
The setting lacked color, but the music was broadcasting it like a prism in direct sunlight! All of the score’s sweeping romance, elegant grandeur, and intimate melancholy was masterfully brought to life by conductor Aleksandar Markovic, making his Seattle Opera debut. Under his leadership, the orchestra, made up of members of Seattle Symphony Orchestra, swelled into plush cascades of sound.
The famous musical motifs emerged out of the score with power and clarity, but organically and without overt quotations around them. The more serene moments of isolated instrumental lines were movingly etched.
John Moore likely got as close a singer can get to making Onegin a sympathetic character. With his smooth, suave high baritone and exceptionally handsome stage presence, he was more aloof than arrogant; a disengaged, directionless man of means who prefers to stick to himself. The way he rejected Tatyana in Act One was gentle and discreet. His flirting with Olga was more out of boredom than vindictive, and he was clearly reluctant to enter the duel insisted upon by Lenksy, and emotionally devastated at the outcome.
There was an authentic exuberance to this man’s sudden, too-little-too-late infatuation with Tatyana, which won him some grains of empathy when she turns the tables of affection back against him in the opera’s final moments.
Moore sang most of the opera with an elegant detachment, setting the stage to make a huge impact with the thrilling tone he unleashed in his romantic epiphany and the crushing final duet.
It’s hard to imagine a more well-matched baritone in this role.
Such an Onegin needs a remarkable Tatyana to justify his life-altering frisson of passion, and Marjukka Tepponen was ideal. Looking like Audrey Hepburn in “War and Peace,” she was a gorgeous vision of the iconic 19th Century romantic heroine. Tatyana’s arc was totally convincing in Tepponen, from introverted idealist, to lovestruck ingenue and heartbroken reject, to dignified and clearheaded aristocrat.
Tepponen is from Finland, a Nordic nation that borders Russian — her hometown Helsinki is just a 16-hour ferry ride from St Petersburg. One could hear how idiomatic her phrasing and shining tone were for the role, with sonic echoes of the woodwinds that Tchaikovsky infused in his orchestration.
The showpiece Letter Scene, one of a dozen or so truly iconic soprano soliloquies in the operatic canon, was rapt with lyric vocalism used to express the range of Tatyana’s emotion. After singing her heart out for close to 15 minutes, Tepponen collapsed on her bed from joyous exhaustion.
Tatyana’s reluctant admission of love (“Akh! Ya vas lyublyu!”) in the final duet was a long, exquisite diminuendo on a high A-flat. For Taytana’s final note in the opera just before she shuts the door on Onegin, her highest in the score, Tepponen gave us a gleaming, emphatic high B. I felt the audience was about to cheer her for both the power of the singing and for finally sticking up for herself.
A Tenor Poet, A Bass Prince, And 3 Low-Voiced Women
With his tall, lean frame and blonde curls, Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth was a dapper, conflicted Lenksy. He worked up a frenzy of jealous angst in the name day dance scene, then pulled inward for the tragic duel and the melancholy “Koda, Koda” aria. The profound self-reflective pathos of this aria was made more moving through Ainsworth’s exquisite vocal control, launching the second verse with a haunting, clean-lined pianissimo.
Melody Wilson made for an awkward Olga, with a forced and cloying juvenile physicality. For example, she was apparently asked by the director to skip everywhere, an overtly obvious way to telegraph that Olga was the perky sister. She never seemed to stop skipping, even as she took her curtain call! Wilson was inscrutable during the scenes of Onegin’s flirtations at the name day party: why was she so blasé about Lensky’s turmoil? Since this leads indirectly to Lensky’s death, a clearer dramatic choice from Wilson and the director were warranted. Tchaikovsky scored the role for a low mezzo, which is disorienting for such an upbeat and youthful ingenue; even so Wilson’s tone seemed unusually heavy for such a flighty young woman.
David Leigh made a dignified Prince Gremin, if a little stiff and a little young for the role. However, his deep bass voice earned his big moment with such smoldering tone that it made his final G-flat sound lower than it is.
Margaret Gawrysiak was a gracious Madame Larina, and Meredith Arwady won over everyone on stage and off as Filipevna. Her magnanimous contralto was the biggest voice on stage and filled the theater with goodwill.
On the whole, this night was a testament to the vocal prowess of its fine leads and terrific conductor. It’s a shame the production didn’t quite manage a similar level of excellence.