Native Russian from Naperville takes a fresh look at Lyric Opera’s 'Eugene Onegin'
The first day of March in Chicago was grey and wet, and Chicagoans were rushing along the streets with their serious faces and busy minds. For me, it was one of the best days in my life.
Being a native Russian, I took a train from Naperville, where I have lived already for fifteen years, and headed toward Lyric Opera of Chicago to see their production of "Eugene Onegin."
Being raised on the poetry of one of the greatest Russian poets, Aleksandr Pushkin, whose novel became the basis for this opera, and on the music of my famous countryman Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, I was extremely excited to see this production. My soul was trembling in anticipation of a great meeting with the best example of Russian culture, the opera "Eugene Onegin," here, in the heart of Chicago.
I was especially pleased to find out that the production was in Russian, which is not surprising for me. It is extremely hard to translate Russian poetry with its rich language full of metaphors, unique descriptions, and wordplay without losing little, yet significant details and shades of feelings and emotions. It is also very difficult to convey into other languages the particular quality of the Russian way of seeing the world.
In this situation, Tchaikovsky’s music literally comes into play and helps audiences around the world to better understand Pushkin’s poetry, which reflects the mysterious Russian soul. Russian music, just as Russian poetry, is full of dramatic emotions and colorful expressions, and when united together they produce unforgettable masterpieces that live for centuries. Lyric Opera, in this case, took a hard, yet honorable role to perform one of the most tremendous Russian masterpieces, "Eugene Onegin," and to carry its audience away from busy Chicago to a quiet Russian countryside in the first part of the nineteenth century where dramatic emotions unfolded.
From the first moments of the opera, the audience was caught in the interweaving of feelings and emotions of the main characters. Each character brought their own color into the pallet of the opera. The characters contradicted with each other, yet complemented each other’s uniqueness and individuality. Flirty and carefree Olga, with laughter in her voice and a smile on her face, presented by internationally recognized Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova in her American operatic debut, was a complete antipode of the romantic, naïve, vulnerable and thus touching and attractive older sister Tatiana, presented by talented Puerto Rican-born soprano Ana Maria Martinez, a remarkable lyric soprano making her role debut as Tatiana.
Two young men – Eugene Onegin, a playboy of his time with a critical mind who experienced so much in his life that he was already tired of everything, including women and society, and his friend Vladimir Lensky, with his sensitive and creative nature, who lived in his own dream world and didn’t realize the reality surrounding him – these two men also contradicted with each other and at the same time complemented each other demonstrating all the varieties of human soul. The role of Eugene Onegin was performed by the world famous and highly talented Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień who already performed the title role in "Eugene Onegin" at Lyric Opera in the 2007-2008 season. The role of Vladimir Lensky was presented by the acclaimed American lyric tenor Charles Castronovo who is also widely recognized around the world.
This production by Canadian director Robert Carsen, who is highly acclaimed and well-known at many prestigious theaters and opera houses around the world, was originally created for The Metropolitan Opera in 1997 and last presented at Lyric Opera during its 2007-2008 season. This season, the production is highlighted by attracting more international talents and bringing to Lyric Opera new names and a fresh approach. One of them is Alejo Pérez, internationally recognized Argentinian conductor with “an inherent stylistic awareness and the ability to bring every detail of the most complex score to life.” His mastership, delicate sense of style, and individual approach to every musical piece that he is working on helped him to demonstrate all the beauty of the Russian soul expressed in Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin" and added just a little touch of Latin charisma.
Besides these colorful characters and extremely talented professionals, Lyric Opera’s production also brought to play other noticeable figures. They included the renowned Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy in the role of Prince Gremin, the well-known American mezzo-sopranos Katharine Goeldner in the role of Madame Larina, mother of Tatiana and Olga, and Jill Grove in the role of Tatiana’s nanny, Filipyevna, the American tenor Keith Jameson in the role of French tutor Triquet, the acclaimed Japanese baritone Takaoki Onishi in the role of Captain, and the American bass Patrick Guetti in the role of Zaretsky.
All these bright singers, each with a unique individuality and an extreme capability to work in a well-organized ensemble, along with the highly professional Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra, reflected the whole spectrum of this opera and together delivered to the American audience the fullness of the Russian soul, its compunction, lyricism and dramatism.
Each aria, each musical movement, each song performed by the chorus, and each note performed by the orchestra and directed by the conductor’s elegant moves touched my heart and made this production unforgettable. As a school child, I remember studying and memorizing verses from Pushkin’s "Eugene Onegin;" I also remember all these arias and other parts of this opera from the Russian concerts where they were presented as separate pieces and were frequently broadcast on television. So, during the Lyric Opera production, I was singing along with the main characters because I knew the words and the music of this opera from my childhood, and I was also singing along with the Lyric Opera Chorus when it was performing the peasants’ song because I remember studying it and performing it in a choir while getting my degree in teaching music.
All that experience brought me back to my past, which gave me a sweet and touching feeling of belonging to Russian culture, yet adopted by one of the greatest American opera houses – the Lyric Opera. Music doesn’t have borders, and the Lyric Opera’s "Eugene Onegin" production proved it one more time. And even if the American audience didn’t understand Russian words, they could sense them through the singers’ tone of voice and rich intonations and also could read projected English titles created by Francis Rizzo and other talented translators.
Honestly talking, when I couldn’t understand the pronunciation of the singers for whom Russian is not their native language, I also referred to the English titles. Although I would like to mention that all the singers did a beautiful job singing in Russian.
The production was over and some of the admirers of the leading singers, Ana Maria Martinez and Mariusz Kwiecień, lined up to meet them, and I joined them too. The Polish baritone and the Puerto Rican-born soprano united into a dazzling duet and everyone wanted to greet them personally. After complimenting these highly professional and truly beautiful vocalists and expressing my admiration of their talent and mastership, I had to head back home. I stepped out to the busy Chicago streets and immediately a strong wind hit me in the face with little sharp snowflakes. It was cold and wet outside, but I didn’t notice it. I felt warm. I carried home in my heart the warmth of this outstanding Russian masterpiece, which lit my way back to Naperville.
What: Opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago
Address: 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago
When: Feb. 26 to March 20