A Woman’s Triumph
This great melodrama Tchaikovsky hatched in 1879 from Pushkin is one of the best tickets in town. The plush, but modern, staging is brought off in style and with great imagination. There is not a weak link in the singing, and the acting is at the highest level as well. The cast, including Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dina Kuznetsova and Frank Lopardo, is joined by an acting chorus that forges a collective characterization that enlivens every scene they’re in.
Of course the opera has its problems. For one thing, people don’t do much. They just stand around picturesquely, read books and sit at writing tables. And the music is not always top flight Tchaikovsky. It has flashes of greatness everywhere, but much of it is boilerplate, standard issue accompaniment to the high-tone soap opera which unfolds at a leisurely pace.
Every Russian brings his own feelings to this unhappy love story and that prior engagement with the story probably helps to fill in the gaps in the episodic structure of the opera. For first-timers the great set pieces might seem disconnected. But that said, it would be wrong to dwell on the opera’s weaknesses, when there are so many things to savor in the Lyric production (which dates from 1997). In fact, the set pieces, led by Tatyana’s letter scene, are outstanding here.
A special word about Dina Kuznetsova: her very real character has depth and breadth, and she makes the writing of an effusive love letter an epic rollercoaster ride. Add in a rich and flexible voice, and we have a truly memorable Tatyana both as child and mature woman.
The successful performance of the letter scene determines how we judge Onegin’s patronizing rejection of her. If we identify with the girl’s ardent longing, then we will see Onegin as a cad, which he does seem to be in this defining interpretation by Hvorostovsky. This artist is at the peak of his craft now, so we need only sit and be seduced. His stage presence is magnetic, his movements are leonine and always on key. It does seem as if the Siberian tiger is overworked of late (he backed out of half the run this year), but Onegin’s principal emotion is ennui, and he isn’t on stage all that much, so the baritone could almost phone in his performance.
He’s got to be ready to take command of the last scenes, however, and Hvorostovsky does so with power and economy. There is an almost verismo climax as Tatyana turns and runs out of Onegin’s life forever, and he is confronted with his great bereavement and stands abashed and alone at curtain’s fall.
This high strung psychological drama would seem to be perfect for the music of Tchaikovsky, but his score doesn’t always plumb the depths as deeply as his purely orchestral music. Maybe the addition of words made the passions too concrete for him, so closeted, to put his soul out plain to see, with so much sexual ardor attached to his most revealing musical effusions. Maybe the constraints and conventions of Russian opera of the time put a rein on his creativity. His personal life was undergoing its greatest upheavals at the time, with his panic-driven marriage, and his admission of his homosexuality, so that has to be figured in.
But his understanding of the emotional center of Tatyana, from her repressed early years to her strong and ultimately triumphant later self, is at the root of this opera’s success. His own personal struggles shed light on his portrayal of her, Lensky , and Onegin’s rich and affecting stories.