Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”, the second offering of the Houston Grand Opera’s 2015-16 season, was presented in Canadian director Robert Carsen’s classic production, created for the New York Metropolitan opera and now owned by the Canadian Opera Company (Toronto).
[Below: Eugene Onegin (Scott Hendricks, left) makes the acquaintance of Tatyana (Katie Van Kooten, right) at her country home; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The four principal roles were sung by singers whose careers are associated with the Houston Grand Opera. Scott Hendricks sang the title role, Katie Van Kooten that of Tatyana, who becomes infatuated with Onegin and suffers humiliation as a result.
The opera’s other principal roles, that of Olga, Tatyana’s sister and Onegin’s friend, Lensky, were sung by California mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin and North Carolina tenor Norman Reinhardt.
[Below: Lensky (Norman Reinhardt, right) courts Olga (Megan Samarin, left); edited image of a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Scott Hendricks’ Onegin
Texas baritone Scott Hendricks effectively portrayed Onegin, a character who is not inherently evil, but gains little audience empathy because his responses to unexpected events have bad consequences.
I had first seen Hendricks in a lyric baritone role [see Cura, Futral Shine in New San Diego Opera “Pagliacci” – March 22, 2008]. Houston Grand Opera utilizes him in the weightier Verdi baritone repertory [Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012 and Liudmyla Monastyrska, Issachah Savage Lead Strong “Aida” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, November 1, 2013.]
Hendricks impressively sang Onegin’s major arias, each of which is musically and dramatically effective (although, I’m sure that all Onegins are aware that Tchaikovsky has invested three other characters – Tatyana, Lensky and Gremin – with the operas most famous vocal pieces).
Katie Van Kooten’s Tatyana
For the role of Tatyana, Houston Grand Opera enlisted American soprano Katie Van Kooten, another of the artists with long association with the company, including a triumphant performance in the bel canto role of Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) [See Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012.]
[Below: a group of peasants rejoice in a bountiful harvest in Robert Carsen’s production of “Eugene Onegin”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The high point of the role, and arguably the most famous aria in the Russian repertory, is the Letter Song, in which Tatyana puts in writing her attraction to Onegin, in a letter she impulsively writes to him.
Van Kooten’s portrayal fulfilled all the expectations of this iconic part – displaying the range of emotions of an adolescent recognizing her awakening sexual interest in a man she does not know, culminating in one of the most recognizable melodies of Tchaikovsky (the incomparable melodist).
[Below: Tatyana (Katie Van Kooten) revels in the fact that she has put in writing and sent off her most secret thoughts; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Norman Reinhardt’s Lensky
Performing the part of Lensky was Norman Reinhardt, who (like Hendricks) was a former Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist.
Possessing a beautiful lyric tenor voice which has been heard to great effect in Mozart [Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014], Verdi and Britten, Reinhardt eloquently delivered on Tchaikovsky’s most famous tenor aria Kuda, kuda in which Lensky, who has recklessly challenged Onegin to a duel, wonders about whether he will live, and, if not, how he will die.
[Below: Lensky (Norman Reinhardt) contemplates his mortality; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance
Two eminent Russian singers portrayed important secondary roles. The famous mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova was made a strong impression as the Tatyana’s nurse Filipyevna.
Dmitry Belosselskiy was cast in the role of Prince Gremin, who in the final scenes has become Tatyana’s husband. Although the role lasts only a few minutes, it contains another of Tchaikovsky’s most famous arias, in which Belosselskiy excelled.
David Cangelosi sang the role of Triquet. Cynthia Clayton was Larina, Federico De Michelis was Zaretsky and Ben Edquist was the Captain.
German conductor Michael Hofstetter led the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. Richard Bado was the Chorus Master.
Robert Carsen’s “Eugene Onegin”
The revival of Carsen’s production was overseen by American director Paula Suozzi (who had performed similar duties a year earlier at Grand Theatre in Geneva, Switzerland). The production’s sets were designed by Michael Levine.
A striking feature of the Carsen production is a bare unit set that encloses the action. The simple addition of thematic props (deep piles of fallen leaves; rows of chairs arranged in a square) gives one the information as to whether we are in the rural countryside (geographically or psychologically) or in the city.
[Below: members of Russian high society engage in a formal dance; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The autumnal leaves represent the Russian countryside in which a deep cover of fallen leaves signify the harvest season (and have metaphorical significance for Carsen as well.)
The lines of chairs creating a closed square represent the stifling oppression of high society’s expectations of its members and the boundaries imposed upon them.
[Below: the staging of the duel between Lensky (Norman Reinhardt, left) and Onegin (Scott Hendricks, right) in Robert Carsen’s production at Houston Grand Opera; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The most brilliant scenes in Robert Carsen’s conceptualization of Tchaikovsky’s story take place on a bare stage but are spectacularly lit in strong colors.
Lensky’s aria, which refers in part to the next morning’s sunrise (for which he does not survive), is sung in near darkness. The duel takes place on a darkened stage, in deep blue lighting. The sunrise appears yellow against an red-orange sky with the body of Lensky and the grieving figure of Onegin both silhouetted.
[Below: Lensky (Norman Reinhardt, left, on ground) lies dead as Onegin (Scott Hendricks, right) contemplates what he has done; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The staging of the duel alone distinguishes the Carsen production from other mountings of the opera.
What follows is a pantomime of such theatrical effectiveness that I regard the production as a “world treasure” that operagoers should strive to be able to experience and that the opera community of Toronto and the wider world should make sure is never discarded or destroyed.
After the duel comes the familiar polonaise, another of the great melodic instrumental pieces that makes this opera one of the Tchaikovsky’s most esteemed works. In Carsen’s production, there is no curtain nor break in the action between the duel and the next scene that normally begins with the polonaise.
Instead, the formal activities that occur after a death in a duel take place, the body is removed, and then footmen arrive to take Onegin’s pistol, dispose of Lensky’s body, and then dress a emotionally changed Onegin for the formal dance.
[Below: Footmen arrive to attend to Onegin (Scott Hendricks, center, holding pistol, in the aftermath of the duel; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The final scene ends with Onegin’s chance encounter with Tatyana, now established as the Princess Gremin, who has no intention of surrendering her place in society or her marriage to make herself available to the person who repudiated her in the past and killed her sister’s husband-to-be.
Although not denying that she still might have feelings for him, whatever might have been of their relationship if circumstances had been different, it is Tatyana’s choice to reject Onegin’s sudden interest in her and Onegin’s despair that ends the opera.
[Below: Tatyana, the Princess Gremin (Katie Van Kooten, left) rejects the offer of Eugene Onegin (Scott Hendricks, right) for a romantic liaison; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
I recommend this opera, cast and the Robert Carsen production that I regard as a “world treasure” enthusiastically to both the veteran operagoer and the newcomer to opera.