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'Eugene Onegin': Love and honor in lush tones

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2010 - A romantic opera about love, honor and a heart that's slow to warm is the second festival offering of Opera Theatre of St. Louis: Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

For the past three weeks, Sean Curran -- the choreographer who created the dance of the Seven Veils last season in "Salome" -- has been working with the OTSL chorus, dancers and principals on the two dances in the opera. Tchaikovsky, composer of the ballets "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker," treats his opera audiences to two dance scenes: a waltz at country birthday party and his famous Polonaise at the grand ball in St. Petersburg.

The joyful Polonaise is the opera's most widely excerpted music. It's played frequently on classical music stations and at weddings, inaugurals other grand occasions, as well as in movies. St. Louis opera buffs still talk about the Polonaise in the gorgeous ballroom scene in OTSL's 1991 "Onegin" production.

In 1877 the titan of Russian Romantic music, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, chatted with an opera singer about story ideas for what would become the fifth of his 10 operas. She suggested the romance from an epic poem "Yevgeny Onyegin" by Russia's greatest romantic writer Aleksandar Sergejevic Pushkin. Tchaikovsky was working on his Fourth Symphony at the time, but after some consideration, he became excited about the idea of giving a musical life to the popular Russian characters that he -- and all of Russia -- knew.

Tchaikovsky wrote that Pushkin's long poem evoked in him "love and pity as for a real person." According to biographers, the composer's own lovelorn life helped him identify with the naive young girl, Tatiana.

While Pushkin's more complex work focuses on the anti-hero Onegin, Tchaikovsky's opera centers on Tatiana, a sensitive teenage girl isolated in her family's country estate. She spends her days reading novels and dreaming of falling in love. The composer retained many of Pushkin's words and wrote some of the libretto himself with co-librettist K.S. Shilovsky. Using vivid Russian country gentry and nobles was a fresh idea for the opera stage, when most operas rolled out stories of exotic or superhuman creatures.

To underline that difference between his work and the spectacle of many grand operas, he called "Onegin" not an opera but a series of musical scenes. Its premiere in 1879 was not grand, but sparely presented by the polished students of the Moscow Conservatory where the composer taught. From the first, audiences enjoyed the way Tchaikovsky's romantic genius sweeps the listener up in contrasting moods from ecstatic joy, girlish silliness, to the throbbing pain of narrowly missed happiness and melancholy.

Casting For Acting

Opera Theatre has a reputation for casting singers who are believable in their roles -- choosing them not solely for voice types regardless of age or appearance. Coloratura Russian-American Dina Kuznetsova makes her first OTSL appearance singing Tatiana. The Ohio resident and Oberlin Conservatory graduate, Kuznetsova first sang Tatiana at the Chicago Lyric Opera and has performed the role in Lille and Caen, France.


After performances, Kuznetsova should feel comfortable sipping Champagne with audiences in the OTSL garden, since she's already enjoyed picnics in the boxwood gardens at Glyndebourne Festival in England. There she sang Alice Ford in "Falstaff."

Baritone Christopher Magiera sings Onegin, a bored, sophisticated, handsome nobleman. He might pass for Russian with his blue eyes and blond hair. While this is his OTSL debut, he has sung with the Munich opera and Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y. In the fall, he's off to Germany to sing for two seasons at Dresden's Semperoper.

Opera singers prepare music and words for months with their voice coaches before the first cast rehearsal around the piano at the Sally Levy Opera Center in Webster Groves. This winter Opera News magazine praised tenor Sean Panikkar for singing Lensky's aria from "Onegin" about his lost youth and his fear of death in a New York concert at the Morgan Library.

"Lensky's aria ... was so dramatically committed that the concert hall seemed to have been replaced by an imaginary opera set," the reviewer wrote. "Panikkar seized on every open vowel to let his voice bloom fully, infusing his cries of 'Olga' with passionate longing."

That rave brings high expectations for Saturday night, when Panikkar will sing the aria again as poet Vladmir Lensky who is engaged to Tatiana's sister Olga. In Panikkar's first OTSL season last year, he won followers for his role of Count Almaviva in "Ghosts of Versailles."

Bass Oren Gradus returns as the Russian war hero, Prince Gremin, and he, too, has a show-stopping aria. Gadus sang Sarastro here in Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

This production's stage director Kevin Newbury had the fresh idea of starting off the story with a silent cameo of Tatiana holding Onegin's love letter from the final act, as the orchestra plays the prelude. She will be seated beneath her teenage portrait then the stage will open up to the time when her life was full of possibilities and she was in love with the idea of being in love.

As Newbury told opera buffs at the company's panel discussion series "Spotlight on Opera" two weeks ago, Pushkin's characters "are fully drawn" and that's given the cast plenty to work with. He's been helping his cast to project a sense of "longing and regret that happiness was once so close."

Tchaikovsky wrote he didn't like the Onegin character. In the first act, the romantic Tatiana Larina meets the sophisticated and rather aloof Onegin who has just inherited a country estate near her family's. She's completely infatuated with him. She stays up all night writing him a love letter, the kind of letter grandmothers tell you not to mail until you sleep on it. She doesn't sleep, but becomes more ecstatic at dawn as the shepherd's horn is heard.

Onegin does not have the cold heart of a cad, Newbury said. The man of 24 dismisses the infatuated teen who has poured out her heart out in the letter. He warns Tatiana of her "childish" ideas of love, but gives her the smallest wisp of hope.

"He's a real gentleman," Newbury said. "Onegin says, 'It's not you, it's me.'"

In his real life, as Tchaikovsky was composing this opera, a young conservatory student threw herself at him in a letter. The composer was fearful of being as insensitive as Pushkin's Onegin and married her. Their short-lived marriage led to his "nervous breakdown." After they separated, Tchaikovsky finished "Onegin."

An unnecessary dual between good friends in the second act transforms Onegin. Opera-goers might be moved to know that, in real life, Pushkin died four years after writing the poem "Onegin" at the age of 37. He had been forced into a duel to defend his honor against a man who had flirted with his saucy wife.

In the opera, Tatiana makes a conventional match as her mother had. She marries a prince and war hero. By 22 she has blossomed into a great beauty and gracious hostess. Her heroic prince adores her and sings of the joy she has brought him.

After restlessly wandering through Europe, the lonely Onegin sees Tatiana again and is captivated. Bad timing.

Onegin having seen "the world" feels love for the young woman who had worn her heart on her sleeve in a love letter to him several years before. The two do not stop with unspoken longing glances or there would be no opera. This time Onegin writes the love letter. Tchaikovsky's throbbing music blissfully lifts spirits high and swings them low. Audiences in the 21st century still can relate to the pair's bad timing. Who is free now? Could she still love him? Is Onegin's love too late?

Intimate Country Setting

Newbury has taken to heart Tchaikovsky's direction that his work not be overblown like many grand operas but vignettes from real Russian life. Newbury, set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer Martin Pakledinaz have made the first two acts in the country and the final scene in the city spare and intimate "like something in a Chekov play," Newbury said. The production team of three studied paintings and drawings of rather modest, 19th century, romantically crafted wooden Russian country homes.

"We want to emphasize craftsman-style architecture instead of the grand mansions and palaces," Newbury said.

In many Russian and Swedish country houses of the late 18th century, window frames were painted soft pastel colors. In creating the stage windows the set design team evokes Pushkin's description of Tatiana reading seated by a window, isolated from others. The third act's first scene is more splendid: at a ball in St. Petersburg straight from Tatiana's girlhood fantasies.

Wednesday morning OTSL general director Timothy O'Leary spoke to a group of singers in another opera reminding them that "words and music are both equally important to us here." That's not true in some opera houses where one wonders if some singers even know exact meanings of some words they sing.



At OTSL "words and music" means every singer must strive to enunciate every word -- always in English -- and also sing it beautifully, O'Leary told the singing actors.

Lovers of Russian literature know that Pushkin's words are important. Novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev credited Pushkin with elevating and giving birth to the Russian literary language. Novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky called Pushkin a better writer than Shakespeare. Pushkin has the stature with Russians that Shakespeare has with the English-speaking world, that Dante has with Italians, and that Goethe has with Germans, said Richard Tempest, director of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana's Russian, East European and Eurasian Center at a "Spotlight" panel.

Pushkin, himself a music lover, wrote a play about the rivalry between Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri two centuries before the play and movie "Amadeus." Pushkin's brilliant stories, strong characters and poetic lines easily set to song, have attracted other Russian composers. A Pushkin opera festival might include "Mavra" by Stravinsky, "Ruslan and Ludmilla" by Mikhail Glinka, "The Golden Cockerel" by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and two works by Tchaikovsky. Years after finishing "Onegin," Tchaikovsky, pulled another book from the Pushkin shelf and composed "The Queen of Spades."

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has long written on classical music.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.