Eons before the cellphone, Facebook or Twitter, there was a peculiar method of social intercourse called personal correspondence, a.k.a. letter writing. It involved ink and paper, a person to deliver the missive and then time to wait for a response. People in former ages used time differently from the way we do. Letters were the way you talked to friends you didn’t often see at the tavern, social club or work or who lived across town. Everyone of a certain class wrote letters, voluminous numbers of them. Mozart’s correspondence to his family during a short life of constant touring fills at least two books. Tchaikovsky’s output to his beloved brothers and patroness Madame von Meck is no less. It’s no surprise that his most famous opera, Eugene Onegin (1879), should hinge on two fateful letters.
Reserved, dreamy country girl Tatyana (soprano Katie Van Kooten) falls hard for the soignee but icy charms of new neighbor Onegin (baritone Scott Hendricks), bored man of the world. After one meeting, she pours out her heart to him in a letter. He rebuffs her romantic dreams with cool disdain: Marriage — and love — is not for him. And anyway, he could only love her like a brother, which is not what she so obviously craves. She is crushed. Later, to relieve his ennui from these provincials, Onegin stirs up trouble during Tatyana’s birthday celebration by flirting shamelessly with Tatyana’s younger sister, Olga (mezzo Megan Samarin), whose fiancé is Onegin’s friend, the young poet Lensky (tenor Norman Reinhardt). Insulted, Lensky explodes in jealousy and challenges the more experienced Onegin to a duel. Conventions and social mores eclipse friendship; neither one will call off the inevitable. At sunrise, Onegin kills Lensky. Six years later, Onegin returns to Russia, still rootless and unfulfilled. At a grand ball in St. Petersburg, he’s introduced to Tatyana, now married to Prince Gremin (bass Dmitry Belosselskiy). She is wealthy, socially prominent, admired by the Czar. For the first time in his life, Onegin is smitten. He writes to her confessing his love. Her reply the next day: Yes, she still loves him, but will never betray her husband. Whatever it is, this is her happiness now. She rushes from his arms, leaving him desolate and forever alone.
This is all very Russian, full of despair, nostalgia for past better times, fateful acceptance and world-weary melancholy. Sleekly adapting it from Pushkin’s novel-in-verse, Tchaikovsky at first laughed at the idea of turning Russia’s poet laureate into song, but the more he thought about it, the deeper he saw its potential. He also couldn’t avoid the absolute similarities to his own life.
Just as he was completing Tatyana’s lambent and stirring “Letter Scene,” what should he receive but a gushing love letter from young music student Antonina Miliukova, who threw herself at his feet, declaring undying love and admiration (although she didn’t know much about his music), and begging him to marry her. She was obsessed with him, hounding him constantly and sending reams of purple-prose letters detailing deathless devotion.
Utterly gay (an illegal act but viewed with bored disinterest and hardly ever prosecuted in Czarist Russia), the composer made the worst mistake of his life. Perhaps he hoped to convince brother Modest, also gay, that a double life for both of them might be possible, or perhaps he meant to please his family and keep gossip at bay, but with horrible irony he convinced himself. Tchaikovsky did confess to Antonina, like Onegin, that he could only love her as a brother, but that did not deter her maniacal resolve. Never revealing his true proclivities, the marriage was a total sham, causing both of them unnecessary grief and guilt. The marriage was never consummated, and Tchaikovsky ran away from her as soon as he could, but the emotional after-effects lingered. (Antonina spent the last 20 years of her life in an insane asylum, still blissfully enrapt with her husband, never once blaming him for their permanent separation.)
It’s always intriguing to speculate on “art imitating life,” hearing subliminal personal themes where they were never intended, but Onegin is too rife with leitmotivs from his own life not to be somewhat confessional. Anyway, the music is too radiant and lushly romantic, too deeply felt, not to arise and resonate from some place deep inside him. And Onegin’s music is nothing if not absolutely sublime, especially for Tatyana and Lensky.
HGO’s production, via Canadian Opera Company, is as sleek and stylish as that gilded rococo chair we first see at curtain rise during the orchestral introduction. Director Robert Carsen, superbly abetted by set and costume designer Michael Levine, pares down the physical to its essence. Chairs are this production’s leitmotiv, rush-seated and mismatched for the country estate of Tatyana’s widowed mother, padded and elegant when we move to Tatyana’s classy St. Petersburg mansion. A lawn of autumnal leaves, ablaze with orange and red, covers the stage for Act I; serfs will sweep them into a confining circle for Onegin’s confrontation with Tatyana. The duel scene is depicted simply as men’s silhouettes against an inky blue sky, that’s all. There are no sets, just impressions. Visually stunning, everything is simple and clean, offset by the finely detailed dressing and Christine Binder’s painterly lighting.
This fits Tchaikovsky’s refined musical palette, itself impressionistic and totally immersive. His music goes straight to the heart. This is grand opera without the grand. Tchaikovsky subtitled his opera “Lyrical Scenes in Three Acts,” and he strips away anything that smacks of operatic artifice, boiling down Pushkin to the most salient incidents. There’s much masterful theatricality at work here, just more natural and focused than what was expected in late-19th-century opera.
The young HGO cast is nigh perfect. The opera’s premiere took place with a student cast at Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky had taught music theory, for he had wanted singers who looked like the young characters he created so indelibly in music. His wish has come true again.
So incandescent as imperious Elizabeth I in HGO’s Mary Stuart (2012), Van Kooten emblazons the stage with her impetuous Tatyana. Her tight vibrato serves her well, implying youthful nervous energy. She possesses reserves of power, and the justly famous “letter scene” is a master class of emotional honesty, girlish drama and naked vulnerability. Tatyana is this opera’s heart, regardless of the eponymous title, and we watch her character’s progress through the shifting scenes with anxious anticipation. Under Van Kooten’s revealing interpretation, we ache that Tatyana will find her happiness. After Onegin’s bruising rejection, she will settle for a doting rich husband who adores her, but love will not be hers. The sadness of what might have been is abundantly clear in her dramatically compelling voice.
Hendricks makes a polished, aristocratic Onegin, rich of voice and a man of mystery. No wonder Tatyana falls so hard. But this isn’t really his opera. He’s an outsider who watches the drama. Tchaikovsky is not enthralled with him, and brings him alive only in the wrenching final scene. Other than the music for Tatyana, Tchaikovsky throws the opera’s most memorable tunes to young Lensky. Reinhardt runs with this role, impassioned in his pre-duel meditation to the “golden days of youth.” Mournful and resigned, it makes use of those descending scale phrases Tchaikovsky should have copyrighted. The aria is magnificently sung by Reinhardt, the very picture of a lost poet who realizes he’s ultimately lost.
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Like her music, Samarin’s Olga is skittish and full of spirit. Her warm tone and winning stage presence give her character a sunny soul, even when she doesn’t fully grasp the implications of Onegin’s false flirtations, which will prove fatal for her beloved.
But it’s Belosselskiy who commands the audience’s share of applause with his one shining aria, his Act III paean of praise for his wife, Tatyana. Instead of descending scales, this one moves up, in perfect harmony to his words that “love knows no age...she shines like a star...she’s an angel.” It’s truly one of Tchaikovsky’s most elegant and heartfelt love songs, and Belosselskiy’s chasm-deep bass etches the aria with genteel grace and an almost blessed gratitude. If any husband ever needs an aria to show his depth of feeling for his wife, this is the one. Of course, you’d need someone with Belosselskiy’s smooth phrasing and complete control to do it justice.
Renowned international maestro Michael Hofstetter, acclaimed for his interpretations of both rediscovered Baroque works and the most spiky of modern operas, partners brilliantly with romantic Tchaikovsky. He brings out not only the best in the composer but the best in the singers. It’s a rare dynamic.
One of HGO’s most radiantly realized productions in recent seasons, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is unique in the rep. It goes against the operatic grain, finding its voice through musical pointillism — a mosaic made up of pieces without which the whole couldn’t be realized: folk songs for the serfs, a glittering polonaise, a classical waltz and a multitude of sweeping monologues. There’s plenty of room in the world of opera for the intimacy and rueful beauty of Tchaikovsky. HGO shows this in spades.
November 10 and 13. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org.