Those who are drawn to Peter Tchaikovsky's sentimental ballets are often surprised to learn that the composer also wrote operas. His best known is Eugene Onegin, a work that bears little resemblance to the animated melodrama of his Italian contemporaries. Its story unfolds in a series of lyrical scenes about an idealistic young woman from the Russian countryside. The libretto even lifts bits of dialogue from Alexander Pushkin's eponymous verse novel.
Although the title suggests otherwise, Tchaikovsky chronicles the emotional turmoil of Tatyana, who falls desperately in love with Eugene, a well-traveled sophisticate who rejects her outpourings of affection. After Tatyana is rebuffed, her mother throws her a birthday dance, during which a conflict erupts between Eugene and his close friend Lensky. Eugene flirts with Olga, Lensky's flighty girlfriend who is also Tatyana's sister. After Olga responds to Eugene's overtures, Lensky challenges Eugene to a duel and ends up the loser. Years later, Eugene comes home, still bothered by his friend's death. He pays a visit to another friend, Prince Gremin, in St. Petersburg, and learns that he has married Tatyana. Shocked, Eugene realizes he loves her, now that she's a polished aristocrat. But Tatyana chooses to stand by her prince, so to speak.
Onegin is filled with long, plaintive arias that echo Tatyana's passion for the arrogant Eugene until his rebuff stills her heart. During the first two acts of Houston Grand Opera's new production, the four lead singers present stirring character portraits. And Robert Spano sensitively leads the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra in a rich, emotionally satisfying performance.
Houston Grand Opera's Eugene Onegin
Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue
Through February 8; 713-227-ARTS. $18-$225
But the production falls short in Act III, as a result of director Sabine Hartmannshenn's wrongly envisioned final scene between Tatyana and Eugene. In the duet, neither appears sufficiently mature in their remorseful wailing about what might have been. Both singers ignore that time has passed since their youth. Eugene, particularly, seems too young, cavorting excessively across the stage.
Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva has an instinct for playing Russian heroines. As Tatyana, she exudes a calm diffidence in early scenes, even looking a bit drab in her beige costumes. During her lengthy aria, she slowly transforms. The singer's brooding strains build into bold, lyrical resolve, as Tatyana risks her heart to win Eugene. When Tatyana fails to win him with an impassioned letter, Vassileva bursts out in mortified lament.
As Tatyana's sister Olga, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek's vocal mannerisms are animated and pleasantly consistent. Novacek emphasizes Olga's outgoing and giddy nature in marked contrast to the introverted Tatyana. Raymond Very, a skilled tenor, sketches a fine, often solemn portrait of the outraged Lensky, Olga's devoted beau.
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Bo Skovhus, a prominent Danish baritone, re-creates Eugene as the dashing swashbuckler that the composer intended. Several seasons ago, Skovhus was cast as the title character in HGO's staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni. As Giovanni and Eugene, the baritone's svelte Nordic figure is as pleasing to behold as his voice is to hear. In Onegin, the baritone's portrait of the arrogant, itinerant Eugene is perfect until he begs Tatyana to love him. But directors tend to overdirect Skovhus -- hence the unfortunate final scene.
As Prince Gremin, bass performer Oren Gradus has an imperial air that points up Eugene's failures. Unlike his rootless friend, the prince realizes that time catches up with all of us, and even a man of his age can settle down in love. Gradus lends an appropriate measure of humility and calm to his role, a quality imagined by the composer.
In staging Onegin, Houston Grand Opera uses Willy Decker's stylized, warmly colored landscape, barely sketching in the architectural details that suggest a particular time or place. The designers rely on costuming to convey movement from the Russian countryside to St. Petersburg during the late 18th century. The staging is effective, because physical details don't matter much in this tale of one woman's interior life. Against thinly drawn sets, the letters that Tatyana and Eugene exchange take on added significance.
But Tchaikovsky's music tells the real tale. No matter how drenched in Russian melancholy, the composer's music still retains an uplifting magic.