Great art speaks to the heart. And so it is with The Dallas Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin.” The company puts the full force of its world class talents behind Tchaikovsky’s glorious work and its efforts pay off – big time.
Let’s begin with the pre-opera talk. Chorus Master Alexander Rom held court in Hamon Hall, regaling us with stories of the Russian experience. Being from Ukraine, Rom grew up with the original Pushkin’s “verse-novel” (1837) and Tchaikovsky’s brilliant opera (1878). His passion for the material was palpable and contagious, and we left the hall with a better understanding of the story behind the drama.
Under Rom’s direction, The Dallas Opera’s chorus always delivers – no matter the task – and now I understand why. Their leader takes their desire to excel, magnifies it through his lens of excellence, and draws out the very best in each of his singers.
Staging is always of import in grand opera. For “Eugene Onegin,” TDO taps the Israeli Opera Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s production, with set design by Alexander Lisyansky, costuming by Maria Chiara Donato (with additional costuming by Annamode Costumes, Rome), and lighting by Laurent Castaingt.
The audience is greeted with a stark landscape, with a stand of birch trees and a grand piano, representing the pastoral setting near St. Petersburg in Acts I and II. Subtle lighting changes follow day into night into day again as the women of the estate are introduced and transformed.
Madame Larina, regally sung with restraint and grace by Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, and her long-time servant Filipievna, performed by Meredith Arwady, a contralto with incredible power and presence, reminisce about their younger days.
Madame Larina’s daugthers, Olga and Tatyana, gather around the piano for a lovely duet.
Olga, as sung by Dutch mezzo-soprano Kai Ruutel, represents effusive, wide-eyed romanticism. She sees the world through rose-colored glasses. She’s engaged to Lensky, her neighbor and childhood companion. Her life is set, or so she believes.
Tatyana, on the other hand, keeps her nose in a book. Where her sister is blonde and fair, Tatyana is dark and pale. This opera could have been called “Tatyana,” as the story is truly hers. Svetlana Aksenova makes her North American debut in the role, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better Tatyana. Being Russian, Aksenova is able to add another layer to the lyrics, which were written in her native tongue.
In Act I’s duet, Ruutel and Aksenova’s voices blended so well, you’d think they were using autotune or some other kind of electronic manipulation to produce such a clear sound.
To break the sister’s reverie, peasants – in the form of the chorus – announce the harvest, celebrating with song and folk dance. The chorus sounded glorious Sunday. They were in sync, on time and full flight, enriching the overall experience as they take the stage for the harvest festivities.
Lenskey and his friend Onegin arrive on the scene, and, as often happens in opera, Tatyana falls immediately in love with the aloof Onegin. She stays up all night writing a letter to her beloved, pouring her heart out on the page.
Tatyana’s “letter” aria is one of the longest in opera repertoire. Aksenova was up to the challenge, pacing herself as she worked up to the moment when her passion reaches full bloom and she truly gives her heart to Onegin – at least on paper.
The next morning, Onegin comes calling and shatters Tatyana’ hopes and dreams when he rejects her, telling her she’s foolish to share her emotions so freely.
Andrei Bandarenko’s reading of Onegin could very well become the gold standard for the role. The Russian baritone is the epitome of detached ennui – bored, distant, above it all. I never felt he was acting. I’m not sure how he did it, but in the beginning, his voice was cold and removed, yet retained all of its rich quality.
Fast forward several months. Everyone gathers for a party. Onegin, bored out of his mind with the countryside and its people, decides to amuse himself by flirting with Olga, which infuriates Lensky.
Tenor Stephen Costello, a Dallas favorite, embodies the volatile Lensky.He’s hot-headed, emotional and irrationally jealous, losing his head and challenging his friend to a duel at sunrise the next morning.
Costello always leaves everything on the stage. His pre-duel aria was one of Sunday’s highlights, receiving an enthusiastic and lengthy ovation.
The opera’s final act opens several years later at an elegant St. Petersburg ball, honoring Tatyana, now the wife of Russian military hero Prince Germin. A huge crystal chandelier dominates the grand ballroom, itself surrounded with elegant glass panels.
The chorus delights with their interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Polonaise” that opens the third act. They are aristocratic, and well choreographed by Cooky Chiapalone. They draw the audience in and make us feel as though we were guests, too.
Onegin, who has been traveling the world since the duel, attends the gala, still detached, strolling around the edges of the action. His once icy heart is set suddenly aflame by a woman he finally recognizes as Tatyana.
She still has feelings for him, though she prays for the strength to keep them hidden.
A few nights later, they meet in a snowy field, dominated by the ballroom’s grand chandelier, now lying askew on the ground, perhaps representing the light lost from Onegin’s life.
Onegin falls to his knees in front of the woman he once so carelessly rejected. He confesses his love and begs her to leave her husband. Bandarenko morphs seamlessly from detached to desperate as he realizes this is his one chance at true love.
Tatyana, a deeply noble character, while still in love with Onegin, remains steadfast and true to her husband, abandoning Onegin in the forest, as he once did her.
Keeping track of all this action, never missing a beat, is Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, now in his fourth season as TDO’s music director. Dallas has fallen in love with maestro – for good reason.
He elevates everything about a production with his energy and complete command of the material in front of him. He makes the score come alive, thus energizing his orchestras. His singers rarely miss a cue. He keeps everything moving along, with seeming ease. I’ve seen him on the podium numerous times in Dallas and had the good fortune of being in Santa Fe this summer when he conducted “Girl of the Golden West.” I would watch him conduct the phone book and relish every second. He’s that accomplished.
Of special note is tenor Don LeBlanc, a chorus member who has an offstage solo in Act I. LeBlanc performed at a benefit concert in Winnsboro last year, so we have a special affection for him. On Sunday, he was in great voice and we were happy TDO featured him.
Mikhail Kazakov, who sang Prince Gremin, didn’t have much stage time, but he used it well. By the end of his aria in Act III, the hall was filled with his rich bass tone and there was that moment of silence that every artists covets – that instant between the last note and the applause. For Kazakov, time seemed to stand still. Then, the ovation came – loud and long.
You have two opportunities to see TDO’s magnificent production – Wednesday, Nov. 2 and Saturday, Nov. 5. Tickets start at just $19. Call the box office at 214-443-1000.
If you go, get there an hour early and attend Rom’s pre-opera lecture. At the end of his talk Sunday, he gave us a great piece of advice.
“Listen to this opera with your heart.”
He was so right.
When you open your heart, TDO’s magnificent rendering of Tchaikovsky’s dreamy score will transport you to another place and time – in the best way possible.
Bravi, TDO. Bravi.
Note: There was a moment of disappointment Sunday, but it had nothing to do with TDO.
It takes a while for a cast as large as “Eugene Onegin’s” to reassemble for curtain call. Instead of waiting to show their appreciation, a large portion of the audience rushed to the exits. Instead of looking out on a sea of grateful patrons, what the singers saw were profiles of people scurrying out of the hall. Those of us who remained made a lot of extra noise, but I’m sure the international cast members who were making their North American/TDO debuts noticed the exodus. Most of those leaving were seated down front in the season ticket holder section. They know better.