Review: A Fascinating “Eugene Onegin” at The Dallas Opera, October 30, 2016

The Dallas Opera imported veteran French director Jean-Claude Auvray’s production of Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera, “Eugene Onegin”. Auvray’s production was created for the Israeli Opera Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Although “Onegin” is usually presented as a straightforward story, the Auvray production is constructed of psychoanalytic symbols and surreal elements. Only the first part of the third act, set in the ballroom of a Saint Petersburg palace, is presented realistically. Every other scene deconstructs reality and engages us in an imaginative exploration of Onegin’s mind.

Andrei Bondarenko’s Eugene Onegin

Leading an international cast was baritone Andrei Bondarenko, the 2011 Cardiff Singers of the World prizewinner for song, whose Dallas Opera debut (as Robert Duke of Burgundy in Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”) took place in 2015. Possessing an elegant lyric baritone, Bondarenko was an arresting Onegin.

The productions’s surreal concepts suggested the sense of psychological anguish that the character faced, resulting from the thoughtless behaviors that led to his humiliation of the lovestruck Tatyana, and the later killing his best friend, Lensky, in a duel.

[Below: Andrei Bondarenko as Eugene Onegin; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Svetlana Aksenova’s Tatyana

As Tatyana, Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova made her American debut for the The Dallas Opera season’s opening night performance.

Tatyana’s letter song, in which she impulsively reveals her adolescent passion for Onegin, is the most famous soprano aria in Russian opera. Aksenova’s lyric soprano gleamed, her beautifully controlled vibrato adding dramatic flair.

[Below: Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova) pours out her heart and passionate longing in a letter she comes to regret sending; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Aksenova portrayed with believability both the naive girl and the sophisticated woman who married into nobility. She sustained her character Tatyana throughout the opera – including Auvray’s ambiguous final scene, for which there could be alternate explanations as to what is happening, or of what is being imagined.

[Below: Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova, center front), now Princess Gremin shows apprehension about the reappearance of an old acquaintance; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Stephen Costello’s Lensky

The role of Lensky is one of the defining roles of the operatic lyric tenor that some regard as a rite of passage in a lyric tenor’s career. Stephen Costello, who has shown mastery of the iconic lyric roles of Donizetti, Verdi and Gounod, chose Lensky as the role to display his first foray into performing in Russian.

Costello’s voice has grown in power and expressiveness. He delivered Lensky’s aria Kuda, kuda vï udalili (the most famous tenor aria in Russian opera) with passion.

[Below: Lensky (Stephen Costello, seated center) becomes increasingly jealous of his friend’s flirtation with his fiancé; edited image based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


For my recent conversation with Costello about his role choices and Lensky, see Santa Fe Opera’s First-Ever Roméo : A Conversation with Stephen Costello.

Kai Rüütel’s Olga

The Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel was an engaging Olga, charming in her folksongs and duet with Aksenova’s Tatyana.

[Below: Olga (Kai Rüütel, second from left in yellow skirt) enjoys a peasant dance; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Mikhail Kazakov’s Prince Gremin

Russian basso Mikhail Kazakov, in a role that lasts only 13 minutes, made a strong impression performing Prince Gremin’s familiar aria, which Kazakov dispatched with his resonant bass voice and commanding stage presence.

[Below: Mikhail Kazakov as Prince Gremin; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Five seasons ago, The Dallas Opera imported the production of Mussorgsky’s most famous opera created by the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky [World Treasure: a Stunning Dallas Opera Revival of Tarkovsky’s Classic, Insightful “Boris Godunov” – April 1, 2011.] The title role in those performances was assumed by Kazakov, who returned to Dallas for the role of Prince Gremin.

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume and the Musical Performance

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume led the Dallas Opera Orchestra and chorus in a beautifully-conceived musical performance.

In his Dallas Opera debut, Musa Ngqungwana was Zaretsky, Lensky’s second for the duel. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet was Larina and Meredith Arwady was the Nurse, Filipievna. Greg Fedderly was Briquet, Don O’Neal LeBlanc sang the role of a Tenor.

Jean-Claude Auvray’s Production

French director Jean-Claude Auvray, whose production revival was directed by Regina Alexandrovskaya, suggests that the opera exists in two sharply differentiated realms. Most of the opera takes place in the surreal Larin estate and its provincial surroundings. One scene takes place in Prince Gremin’s palatial Saint Petersburg ballroom.

[Below: Eugene Onegin (Andrei Bondarenko, second from right) stands in the Saint Petersburg ballroom in which Prince Gremin (Mikhail Kazakov, right) and his wife, Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova, far left) entertain; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Differing markedly from the what was envisioned by composer Tchaikovsky, his librettest Shilovsky and the opera’s ultimate source, Pushkin, all of the “provincial” scenes take place within a white birch forest. All of the interior scenes specified in the libretto – Tatyana’s bedroom and Larin household’s provincial ball –  take place outdoors, with the interior furnishings – including pianos, beds and chairs -nestled in the forest undergrowth.

[Below: Eugene Onegin (Andrei Bondarenko, left) listens to the confession of love from Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova, right); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


The scene that appears based in reality is the ball scene in Prince Gremin’s mansion, illuminated by a giant chandelier. At the moment, however, before Tatyana and Onegin begin their final conversation the curtains close for a scene break.

When the opera begins again, we are transported back to the birch forest into which a giant chandelier has crashed. The scene resumes with Tatyana’s confession of her love for Onegin, then her disappearance from his life forever.

Thoughts on the Auvray Production

Theater-regie as an “art form” created by “concept directors” continue to be controversial, sometimes with justification. It has been my experience, however, that innovative approaches to staging opera, including those created for European audiences, can be illuminating. Auvray’s vision raises profound issues.

It is possible for the opera to be staged as a succession of Tchaikovsky’s melodic scenes – the peasant folk-songs, the duet between Tatyana and Olga, the Letter scene, the Larin ball with its waltzes and choruses, Lensky’s aria, the duel, the mazurka, Gremin’s aria – in which Onegin, himself, even though he sings some Tchaikovsky melodies of his own, can sometimes be marginalized by the music and spectacle that involves the other characters.

However, Auvray’s conceptualization of the opera places Onegin at the center (which works especially well when a strong presence like Bondarenko sings the title role). Auvray, by creating a break between the first part of the Saint Petersburg scene and Tatyana’s private conversation with Onegin, clearly provides an alternate way of thinking about the opera. We might consider ourselves enmeshed in Onegin’s memories throughout the opera – all the provincial scenes with Tatyana, Olga and Lensky submerged in a symbolic forest – in which his memories of his conversation with Tatyana also is located. We might also consider the possibility that the entire final conversation with Tatyana – in which she confesses that she still loves the man who rejected her in her youth – is a hallucination of a possessed mind.


I recommend this opera, cast and production both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.