Wagner delivered unparalleled romantic fulfillment, but when it came to expressing romantic yearning, Tchaikovsky was unsurpassed — as evidenced with “Eugene Onegin.” It’s hard to believe that L.A. Opera, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is staging its first “Onegin.” Tchaikovsky would be pleased. The production, borrowed from the Finnish National Opera and Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, delights the eye, even if it’s a bit fussy. Better yet, the singers delight the ear, even if they are a bit blunt in their approach.
The principal lovers, Tatiana (Oksana Dyka) and Onegin (Dalibor Jenis), don’t die in this opera, and even more amazing, they never even kiss, although director Francesca Gilpin has them fool around a bit at the end in her staging. The problem has been that when she was a teenager Tatiana wrote a love letter to the older Onegin, and he didn’t take it very well, rejecting her with a lot of talk about not being the marrying kind. Worse, and just because he’s bored and Byronic, he flirts with her sister (Ekaterina Semenchuk), who’s engaged to his good friend Lensky (Vsevolod Grivnov), which, because it is a Russian opera, results in Onegin killing Lensky in a duel. Years later, when she has married a prince (bass-to-watch James Creswell) and Onegin has pretty much wasted his life, he realizes his mistake and proclaims his love to Tatiana. She’s still in love with him, but after all, she’s married to royalty now and knows to stay put.
This letter-writing thing may seem dated, but how many Real Housewives of Whatever have sent impulsive emails, texts or twitters that they’ve come to regret, spinning out a whole season’s worth of episodes on Bravo?
But back to the 19th century. Anthony McDonald has created a lovely box-within-a-box set that allows for stunning land- and cloud-scapes to be projected on the cyclorama in front of a pastoral pond, which turns into a Saint Petersburg skating rink for the third act. Tchaikovsky provided no fewer than five stunning dances in “Eugene Onegin,” and for those familiar with the opera, it will come as a shock to find that Prince Gremin has taken to the cold outdoors rather than entertain his guests at home in his ballroom. Instead of a grand promenade, we get ice-skating complete with torches on the snow — an amazing stage picture. Tatiana’s nightmare at the beginning of act two, featuring Onegin and a bunch of big critters, is much less effective.
L.A. Opera has cast its “Eugene Onegin” trio with the real thing: Eastern European singers who possess world-class voices. Dyka and Grivnov are a bit more stentorian in their approach than these lyric roles can handle, but they deliver stunning vocalism if not much nuance. Jenis could also be more elegant, but he gets underneath the music to pull out a full-blooded, if not sympathetic, portrait of a seducer-cad.