Mark Gresham | 05 NAR 2019
Last Saturday at the Cobb Energy Centre, The Atlanta Opera presented the first of four performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Cobb Energy Centre. Three performances remain: tonight (Tuesday, March 5) again on Friday and Sunday.
Tenor William Burden was scheduled to make his much-anticipated Atlanta Opera debut as Lensky, Onegin’s best friend, but came down with a sore throat Saturday morning, so was unable to perform. With only six hours notice, his cover, tenor Justin Stolz, a member of the Atlanta Opera Studio, stepped in to sing Lensky and simply knocked it out of the park. He sang from the edge the apron while Burden mimed and lip-synced the role onstage. Not only that, Stolz also sang his assigned role of Monsieur Triquet, for which there was no understudy.
To complicate matters further, there’s a scene in which both Lensky and Triquet appear. That quandary was addressed by having Stolz sing Lensky’s lines at the stage’s edge then step onstage as Triquet. Somewhere in the mix, Stolz also portrayed a peasant – playing three roles in one performance. The apex for Stolz, and a high point for the opera, was Lensky’s big aria in Act II, “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” (“Where, where have you gone, golden days of my spring?”), in which Lensky looks back on his happy youth and realizes that he will probably die in the looming duel with Onegin. not particularly caring if he dies except that he would never see Olga again.
As of this writing, word is that Burden has recovered and will be back onstage as Lensky in Tuesday night’s performance.
Baritone David Adam Moore offered up a strong performance as the complex, self- contradictory Onegin, a bored and cynical dandy who in Moore’s words “tends to live rather haphazardly, indulging in pleasures in such a way that often hurt people around him.” It would be easier to play Onegin as just the shallow “superfluous man” trope, but Moore works to give him more depth. He still doesn’t come off as much of sympathetic character, but one who has earned his personal misery in the end.
That sympathy is reserved for the other characters carelessly trampled in Onegin’s listless path, in particular Tatyana, splendidly portrayed by soprano Raquel González. The story’s heroine and virtuous counterpoint to Onegin, in Act I Tatyana falls in love with him. After he coldly rejects, Tatyana is never ultimately happy, but by Act III has found a certain satisfaction and integrity in her high-society marriage to Prince Gremin (bass Önay Köse), rejecting Onegin’s advances in the opera’s finale.
In the same way that Lensky, in his youthful Romantic idealism and naïve enthusiasm for life, is a foil to Onegin’s character, the young Olga (ebulliently sung by mezzo-soprano Megan Marino) is an innocent if easily swayed counterpart to her older, more reserved sister Tatyana. No wonder that Olga quickly becomes engaged to Lensky; nor that her careless flirtation with Onegin is the catalyst for a duel between him and Lensky, resulting in Lensky’s death at the end of Act II, after which Olga no longer appears in the story.
Quite frankly, it is not the simple, somewhat commonplace plot that gives Pushkin’s versified novel its literary power, but the many diversions it takes into colorful, detailed descriptions of Russian life. The challenge of translating the story to the operatic stage is that its dramatic success hinges largely upon character development. Fortunately, three key dramatic goalposts assist: Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana at the end of Act I; the death of Lensky at the end of Act II, and Tatyana’s summary refusal of Onegin’s now lovelorn pleadings at the opera’s conclusion.
Production and stage direction play an important role in keeping the highly narrative story moving. Director Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera’s executive and artistic director, guided the elements in a way that didn’t let the dramatic thread drop. The middle of Act I seemed to pose the greatest challenges to the viewer’s attention, but the pace picked up in Act II.
Zvulun also uses an interesting device in this production: a pair of supernumeraries, representing an “old” Onegin and Tatyana, are silently presented to the audience, as if to imply that long after the opera’s story is done, some kind of emotional connection between the two still exists, if only in their memories.
Tchaikovsky’s music is decidedly the strongest underlying element assisting the dramatic momentum, convincingly played by the Atlanta Opera Orchestra under the expert baton of Ari Pelto. The popular “Polonaise” that opens Act III stood out as a point in which the orchestra took on a primary focus of attention.
The several folk and social dance scenes, choreographed by Logan Pachciarz, also provide a welcome contrast to the story’s narrative thread among the four principal characters, as do the various supporting roles. It’s a relatively traditional production for Atlanta Opera, versus some of its more technology-laden ones. The relatively few scene changes require only silent pauses or intermissions between, which is comfortable enough while allowing Zvulun his penchant for giving a cinematic feel to the production. (Compare with the numerous scenes and transitions in TAO’s recent Dead Man Walking.)
While much of Erhad Rom‘s scenic design is of a neutral gray hue, not drawing undue attention to itself, a large chromatic backdrop of a reddening sky with clouds exudes not only the emotional character of early 19th-century European landscape paintings, but also that or long, panoramic landscape shots from classic color widescreen cinema. Robert Weirzel‘s lighting is totally compatible with that, but also becomes technically essential to marking the several stop-action tableaux that Zvulun uses — another cinematic touch that substitutes for a camera’s ability to zoom in — when he wants to draw attention to the interactions of principal characters in the midst of a busy, crowded room, through a sudden shift of lighting.
All of this together offers the audience the grandness of Pushkin’s verbal descriptions in visual and dramatic form, within which the simpler story is able to be satisfyingly sung and effectively played out. ■
Note: Thumbnail headshots are courtesy of The Atlanta Opera.