Opera Review: Canadian Opera Company, Eugene Onegin

Photo by Michael Cooper

Review – Canadian Opera Company, Eugene Onegin by P.I. Tchaikovsky, conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Robert Carsen, designed by Michael Levine, Four Seasons Centre, Sept. 30 to Nov. 3, 2018.

I actually saw this production when it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, and I thought it was brilliant – a magical blend of focused minimalism and exquisite visual details. If memory serves me right, and it was 21 years ago, I was shocked to discover at the time that the New York critics had savaged the production. As I recall, the Times critic, thought more kindly about this Robert Carsen/Michael Levine effort in his season wrap-up months later, but it was too little, too late.

When I say focused minimalism, I mean director Carsen and designer Levine’s vision of a memory piece which translates into an uncluttered stage with each scene conveying a strong single point of view. The creators have taken as their overall theme, that of Onegin’s personal tragedy – how he could have had Tatyana but lost her. Thus we see his empty life symbolized by his sitting in a chair, alone on stage, as both the opening and the closing images of the opera. For each vignette, there is no scenery other than what is necessary. For example, the trunks of a few carefully placed birch trees, and a carpet of fallen leaves indicate the Larin country estate. Similarly, Tatyana’s tiny bedroom is set right in the centre of the stage, almost adrift in the hugeness of the playing area. Augmenting the dream aspect of the production are the three huge walls that convey changing moods through Jean Kalman’s original lighting palette. (There are some design miscues, however. The creators may want to convey that Tatyana has chosen to live in the attic so she can look at the moon, or that Onegin imagines her living in an attic, but the trap door into her bedroom is jarring. It is clumsy and distracting and does not work. In short, I hate it.)

Photo by Michael Cooper

As for Levine’s exquisite details, when I realized that the COC was bringing this particular production to Toronto, I instantly recalled two visual images – and this is over two decades later. The first was the mismatched circle of chairs at Tatyana’s name-day fete. It is almost as if the Larins used every stick of furniture they had in their house, and then borrowed every chair they could from their neighbours. And at that same name day ball, there were the dresses of the ladies. In their attempt to copy their style-setting city cousins, these provincial women had added just a little too many frills, and a little too many garish colours to their finery. The combination of the chairs and the clothes captured the country gentry’s lack of sophistication to perfection.

Musically, the production is superb. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on the subject of Johannes Debus’ conducting, but he continues to impress at highlighting the dramatic elements of composer’s intentions. I find myself hearing new musical accents in opera scores I know well when he is at the helm. I should add, however, that the French horns were a little wobbly at the performance I attended.

Photo by Michael Cooper

As for the singing, the cast is populated by talented Canadians with well-deserved international careers, several of them COC Ensemble Studio graduates. Unfortunately, it was announced that bass-baritone Gordon Bintner (Onegin) was under the weather and so we never got to experience the full out-pouring of his voice. His stiff, pompous characterization of the eponymous anti-hero was right on the mark, however. The handsome Bintner cuts a romantic figure on the stage, and he sang well enough within his constraints, but it was disappointing not to hear him give his all to the role. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) was divine, both in acting and singing chops. She has wonderful voice control and can manipulate her output to soar or to soften as needed. Her letter-writing scene was a marvel of nuance, and I thought she deserved a greater response from the audience than she received. Joseph Kaiser (Lensky) has grown up into a wonderfully expressive tenor, fulfilling the promise of his COC Ensemble days. He is a master of emotion. One current Ensemble member caught my attention. Bass-baritone Joel Allison was Zaretsky who is Lensky’s second in the duel scene. Although it is a tiny role, he displayed a rich fulsome sound that bears watching.

As for the singers from away, Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan (Olga) has a lush, fruity sound that captures the ear. It seems Russian basses are best in the role of Gremin, and Oleg Tsibulko certainly had the rolling low notes in his boots that you need to sing the role. He also cuts a handsome, courtly figure in his impeccably tailored uniform. Rounding out the cast are American mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lattimore and Helene Schneiderman (Filipyevna and Madame Larina respectively) who are both accomplished singers, and French character tenor Christophe Mortagne who captured the fussy twee Monsieur Triquet in delightful fashion.

This abused Metropolitan Opera production works on every level, and I’m delighted that companies like the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the COC are taking it off the shelf and giving it a well-deserved airing.