Chicago Theatre Review
Unrequited Love at Lyric Opera
Eugene Onegin – Lyric Opera
Lyric Opera of Chicago leaves us wanting more as it closes out the Grand Opera portion of its 2016/2017 season with Tchaikovsky’s aching haunted Eugene Onegin. Having led us to the heights of passion with Wagner’s shining Das Rheingold, Berlioz’s brash, transcendent Les Troyens, and a 1960’s, baby boomer-accessible production of Mozart’s sparkling Magic Flute, our city’s world-renowned opera company sends us into spring remembering loves lost, and newly cherishing those that endure.
With a tale that wept from the pen of Pushkin and a score that whispers and murmurs and cries out all the longings of the troubled soul of Tchaikovsky, Onegin’s (1879) romantic Russian sensibility foreshadows the shimmering ghost stories of Chekov’s Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Director Robert Carsen’s stark production, first seen at Lyric in its 2007-2008 season, robs us of chandeliers and ballet dancers, and gifts us an edgy, up-close psychological study that crystalizes the characters and sends shivers up and down the spine.
As the curtain opens the stage is strewn with fall leaves, with limbless birch tree trunks searching out a cerulean sky. Using only chairs of varied vintages, a small bed, and a desk, Carsen leads us into the tangled lives of Onegin and his two loves: his poetical friend Lensky, and the tumultuously brave Tatiana. As the bored, rich, self-absorbed anti-hero moves disconnectedly through his privileged life, he rejects the budding love of the open-hearted, murders his closest, better self, then returns to the scene of his callow youth to confess new love for the woman he once scored. We are left to ponder the race for love in all its countless forms, and to consider the measure of the winning.
Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień once again lends Lyric his facile, impassioned, passive Onegin. Kwiecień’s voice remains focused and flexible to every emotional intention. His Onegin teeters constantly on the brink of self-awareness, but remains emotionally unavailable even in his final moments of love-pleading. To see the look of detachment stretched over Kwiecień’s handsome face even as he begs for Tatana’s love-mercy is to watch an artist who can essay a characterization with all the layerings his audience can endure.
Making her role debut as Tatiana, Ana María Martínez creates an innocent, introspective introvert of a girl, and then nurtures her into a woman who hears her heart’s calling but has the strength of her adult powers and morality to withstand easy answerings. Martínez, who sings everything from Carmen to Cio-Cio San to Donna Elvira, is at the height of her powers. The dusky quality of her soprano voice defines easy classification. While Tchaikovsky’s writing for Tatiana requests no blazing high notes or rapid ripplings, he bestows upon her the tour de force “Letter Scene.” Encompassing some twelve-minutes of youthful wonder and awakening hunger, the extended aria is as much an actor’s moment as anything else, and Martínez doesn’t disappoint.
I call foul with the staging that requires an obviously tearful Tatiana to be led away by Onegin after his rejection of her, and of her kneeling and crying and touching Onegin in the final moments of the opera. Tatiana is made of stronger stuff than this, even as a girl. Martínez uses and clarifies these moments, and I don’t fault her for the director’s lack of faith in the audience; we can read and connect with a passion that wafts rather than shouts.
Charles Castronovo’s Lensky is as finely drawn a portrayal as I ever hope to see and hear. His passion for Tatiana’s sister Olga is laid soul-bared at our feet. Castronovo plays the growing ardor of his jealousy over Onegin’s irresponsible flirtation with Olga with unadorned honesty, and his reading of Lensky’s farewell aria is unrivalled. Lyric showcased Castronovo’s Tamino in 2011/2012. I hope his return to Chicago is swift.
Onegin calls for three first-class mezzo-sopranos, and here we are in the singing god’s good graces. Making her American operatic debut as Olga, Alisa Kolosova is heartbreakingly effervescent and vulnerable. The voice has a whiskey-undertone that makes her a completely believable sister-match for Martínez’s Tatiana. Katharine Goeldner draws on every expressive opportunity as Mme. Larina, and Jill Grove tears at our hearts as Filipyevna, revealing all the hurt of a mother-figure who stands powerless to save her child.
Dmitry Belosselskiy verifies the authority of mature love with his sonorous portrait of Tatiana’s husband Prince Gremin, Keith Jameson charms as Triquet, a role that requires more beautiful singing than is sometimes the case in the roles performed by this operatic actor, and he does so with great finesse, and bass Patrick Guetti of the Ryan Center chills as a plangent Zaretsky.
Young Argentine conductor Alejo Pérez’s fingers float, cajoling the Lyric orchestra to join in the joyous suffering, and Michael Black’s chorus sounds like a thousand.
It may have slipped away from the grandest of operas, but Lyric is hardly finished with the season. The jazz opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird plays The Harris on March 24 and 26, and then we’re back at the big house for Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, starring British soprano Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle, beginning April 28. O’Hare originated the role of Sibella Hallward in the Broadway musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and is a celebrated Eliza.
Wagner, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, opera jazz, and the precision of a Higgins’ incommunicable adoration. He who wishes to complain about Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2016/2017 season best be content to be his own crowd.
Reviewed by Aaron Hunt
Presented on March 14 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive
More information about Lyric Opera is available at (312) 827-5600, or a lyricopera.org.