Pictured: Tim Murray, Alex Goering, Jonathan Johnson and Morgan Smith. Photo by Cory Weaver.
By Marie Warner
Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s EUGENE ONEGIN is a Russian masterpiece by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin. The work centers on the lives and loves of Russian landholders but is accessible to anyone who has experienced love, loss or loneliness.
The title character, Eugene Onegin, comes to the country estate of young Tatyana, a girl engrossed in the romance stories she has been reading. Onegin is accompanying Lensky, the fiancee of Tatyana’s lighthearted younger sister, Olga. Tatyana quickly becomes enthralled with Onegin and writes him a letter expressing her feelings. Onegin acknowledges his attraction to Tatyana but tells her he is not the marrying kind and would quickly grow bored of her. He moralizes and encourages her to better guard her emotions in the future. Naturally, Tatyana is crushed.
The second act occurs later at the estate, at a ball which Onegin grudgingly attends as a favor to Lensky. To tease his friend, Onegin flirts shamelessly with Olga. Lensky is so incensed by the perceived betrayal of his friend that he challenges Onegin to a duel. Insults are exchanged and escalate to the point where Onegin is forced to accept. Though they have long been close friends, they duel, and Onegin kills Lensky.
The third act takes place five years later, as the lonely and devastated Onegin returns to Russia after traveling abroad. He attends a ball at his friend Prince Gremin’s house and discovers the prince is now married to Tatyana. Onegin’s feelings for Tatyana come rushing back, and hers do the same. However, she is not the same country girl she was and refuses to leave her husband for him. Onegin is left utterly alone.
Morgan Smith gives a strong performance as Onegin. His vocal skill and physical presence emphasize his strength and appeal in the first two acts and make his undoing in the third feel even more sad. Smith towers over most of the cast until he encounters Paul Whelan as Prince Gremin. Whelan’s height and lovely bass-baritone voice felt like an extra twist of the knife for Onegin. Tatyana has replaced him so completely.
Raquel Gonzalez is terrific as Tatyana. She is particularly good in the third act when she wrestles with her reawakened feelings for Onegin, and her final goodbye to him is stunning.
As Lensky, Jonathan Johnson is heartbreaking. As he awaits the duel, he considers his life, his impending death, and his love of Olga. Johnson gives an incredibly emotional performance and the audience was enraptured.
I wish I could have seen more of Megan Marino as Olga. Her lithe physicality and open, expressive face beautifully captured the carefree innocence of Olga, and served as a strong contrast to the more brooding Tatyana.
The entire cast is strong, with additional notable performances by Jane Bunnell as the nurse, Filipyevna, and Alice Chung as Mme Larina.
The set consists mostly of interiors with the Russian countryside behind, extending to the horizon. There is a certain stark beauty, as it is mostly executed in shades of gray, with barren land and falling snow. These elements contribute to the overall feeling that can only be described as “Russian Sadness.” A scrim is used to great effect as a means to separate dream from reality. There is a moment when Tatyana is fantasizing about a life with Onegin. He appears behind the scrim, and Tatyana wraps herself in the fabric. It’s a particularly affecting piece of staging as it physically manifests Tatyana’s inner life.
While I did feel a bit bogged down by the first act, the pace and plot pick up significantly in the second. I found myself engaged and genuinely interested in the action, even knowing the eventual outcome.
As an audience member, a three-hour Russian opera can seem daunting. However, if you’ve ever enjoyed the works of Chekhov or Tolstoy, you will find this a fairly smooth transition. English subtitles are transmitted to a small screen in front of each patron, making this foreign language production easily accessible. If you’ve never experienced Russian anything, I once heard someone describe Chekhov’s THE THREE SISTERS as “Basically a Russian GONE WITH THE WIND.” Keeping that general idea in the back of your mind is also surprisingly helpful for understanding a work like EUGENE ONEGIN.
The Lyric Opera’s production of EUGENE ONEGIN is not always easy to watch or apply to our own lives, but it is worth your time, as it hits all the right musical and metaphorical notes. It serves as a strong reminder that pride and obstinacy ultimately leave us lonely. It is a call to embrace love in our lives. When we are unwilling to do so, “Habit is sent us from above, in place of happiness.”
EUGENE ONEGIN runs through October 8th. For more information visit kcopera.org.