After an absence of 19 seasons, Tchaikovsky’s richly melodic, intensely dramatic 1879 opera “Eugene Onegin” returned to the Santa Fe Opera in a new production by Italian director Alessandro Talevi.
“Onegin” is an opera in which the relationships between four major characters – Onegin, Tatyana, Lensky and Olga – can be presented in different ways. Talevi’s approach, based on the Russian poet Pushkin’s original poem, stresses Tatyana’s fantasy world of dreams and nightmares.
Lucas Meachem’s Eugene Onegin
Although one does not expect a sympathetic presentation of the title character, Onegin, director Talevi treats him better than alternative “Onegin” productions one might come upon these days.
North Carolina baritone Lucas Meachem is an imposing Onegin. While visiting a rural estate, Onegin finds himself in a socially inappropriate situation. Tatyana, a sheltered young woman whom Onegin had found attractive and had accompanied on a stroll through the estate’s gardens, sends Onegin a letter proposing marriage and a life together.
Onegin explains in his major aria Kogda bï zhizn domashnim krugom (which Meachem sang beautifully) that he is not ready for marriage and, if they did marry, she would not like the situation in which she found herself. His condescending reply humiliates Tatyana. That humiliation angers her friends and family.
Onegin, obviously annoyed at the reactions of party guests at the Larina ball, dominates the dance card of Lensky’s fiancé Olga. Meachem’s Onegin, dancing with Avery Amereau’s Olga, proves to be an impressive, high-stepping dancer of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant waltzes. Meachem is equally adept at holding his own in a fist-fight instigated by the jealous Lensky (obviously coached by New Jersey fight director Rick Sordelet).
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Eugene Onegin; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In the opera’s final act, Onegin, returning to Moscow after lengthy travel abroad, finds that Tatyana has married his wealthy, royalty-favored cousin. Onegin suddenly desires that she and he become lovers, a sentiment that Tatyana will not reciprocate. This sends Onegin into an emotional tailspin at the opera’s denouement.
[Below: Eugene Onegin (Lucas Meachem) is in despair that the woman whose expressions of love he rejected two years previously, won’t now leave her husband to be with him; edited image based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
I have been attending performances by Lucas Meachem for the past decade and a half. He achieved fame in his early career for such roles as Mozart’s Don Giovanni [Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011] and Rossini’s Figaro [“Hey, Figaro!”: A Conversation with Baritone Lucas Meachem].
More recently, I was impressed by Meachem’s performance as the Christian monk Athanaël in Massenet’s 1893 opera “Thaïs”. Meachem’s Athanaël who, successfully converting the courtesan Thaïs to a religious life, discovers too late, like Onegin, that he lusts for the very woman whose overt displays of sexual passion he sought to suppress [See Review: Minnesota Opera’s Splendidly Exotic, Erotic “Thaïs” – May 12, 2018.] As both Onegin and Athanaël, Meachem persuasively presented an errant man’s inner conflict.
Sara Jakubiak’s Tatyana
Wisconsin soprano Sara Jakubiak assayed the role of Tatyana, the most famous female role in Russian Opera, whose Letter Scene, in which she confesses her intense, secret love for Onegin, is Tchaikovsky’s most dramatic (and melodic) operatic achievement!
Jakubiak brought a large voice and engaging presence to the iconic role, which, in Talevi’s conceptualization, is rooted in youthful fantasy. Jakubiak’s Tatyana, flush with excitment after composing a love letter to Onegin, imagines him outside her window as a Byronic hero like Healthcliff from Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights.
[Below: Tatyana (Sara Jakubiak, right) in her romantic dreamworld, imagines that Eugene Onegin (Lucas Meachem, background, left) is just outside of her room; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In the opera’s turnabout final scene, the socially secure Tatyana responds to a frantic letter written to her from the man who humiliated her two years prior. Jakubiak’s Tatyana, with great dignity, confesses to Onegin, that, although she still loves him, what he wants cannot happen, and gives Meachem’s distraught Onegin a final, goodbye kiss.
[Below: Tatyana (Sara Jakubiak, right), bids farewell to Onegin (Lucas Meachem, left); edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Dovlet Nurgeldiyev’s Vladimir Lensky and Avery Amereau’s Olga
In his American operatic debut, Turkmenistan lyric tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev brilliantly portrayed Vladimir Lensky, the fiance of Tatyana’s sister Olga.
[Below Dovlet Nurgeldiyev as Vladimir Lensky; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, co Lurtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The role of Olga was sympathetically performed by Florida contralto Avery Amereau. (I had previously praised Amereau’s performances at the Seattle Opera [Review: “Beatrice and Benedict”, Seattle Opera Reinvents Berlioz’ Opera – February 24, 2018]) Amereau showed comfort singing the deepest notes in Olga’s range.
[Below: Avery Amereau as Olga; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In Talevi’s production, Lensky is quick to anger and extremely possessive of Olga. Meachem’s Onegin exploits Lensky’s obvious discomfort and dances with a flattered Olga throughout the evening. Onegin’s behavior leads to a slugfest between him and Lensky, which ends with Lensky challenging Onegin to a duel.
In the opera’s early scenes, Lensky and Olga were convincing as young lovers, but soon Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana’s romantic invitations, Onegin’s and Olga’s flirtations with each other and Onegin’s monopolization of Olga’s time on the dance floor, sends Nurgeldiyev’s Lensky into a blistering rage.
Talevi’s aggressive staging of Lensky’s rage and possessiveness avoids a potential dramatic weakness in “Eugene Onegin’s” dramatic flow – that Onegin’s behavior does not seem to warrant a duel challenge, especially one that leads to Lensky’s death. But if Lensky is shown to be an 18th century Russian hothead, the idea that he would challenge a friend for a duel would seem more plausible.
[Below: Olga (Avery Amereau, right, background) is frightened by the display of anger by Lensky (Dovlet Nurgeldiyev; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
At the beginning of the next scene, in which the duel between Lensky and Onegin takes place, the doomed Lensky sings the introspective aria Kuda, kuda vï udalilis, the most famous tenor aria in Russian opera. Nurgeldiyev delivered it stylishly.
James Creswell’s Prince Gremin
This has been my second opportunity to experience the Prince Gremin of Washington state bass James Creswell, whose performance I had admired a decade ago in Los Angeles [Ovations for Oksana Dyka, Dalibor Jenis, James Conlon – “Eugene Onegin”, Los Angeles Opera, September 17, 2011]. In the ensuing years, Creswell has emerged as a leading bass, whose contributions to the character roles in his vocal category have proved invaluable.
[Below: Prince Gremin (James Creswell, right) welcomes his cousin Eugene Onegin (Lucas Meachem, left) to his palace; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Katharine Goeldner’s Larina and Deborah Nansteel’s Filipyevna
Tatyana’s and Olga’s mother, Madame Larina, was given a spirited performance by Iowa mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner, especially as the hostess for director Talevi’s eventful Larina ball. I had seen Goeldner in one previous assignment impressively portraying Jackie Kennedy in David Little’s opera “JFK” [World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016].
[Below: Madame Larina (Katharine Goeldner, front left) greets her unusally costumed party guests; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Okinawan mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel was affecting as Tatyana’s nurse, Filipyevna, who attempts to temper Tatyana’s over-the-top romantic feelings. Nansteel is masterful in portraying lively characters, such as Nettie Fowler [Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014].
[Below: Deborah Nansteel as Filipyevna; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
At Santa Fe Opera, Nansteel memorably created the role of Lucinda in a new opera. [World Premiere Review: All-Star Cast and Crew, Ardent Audience Ovation for Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2015].
Matthew diBattista’s Monsieur Triquet, Other Cast Members and Santa Fe Opera Apprentices
Massachusetts tenor Matthew DiBattista performed the role of the French guest Monsieur Triquet, who sings one of Tchaikovsky’s charming melodies with distinction. In Talevi’s production, which centers on Tatyana’s dreamworld, DiBattista’s Triquet is a lively fantasy-world presence.
[Below: Matthew DiBattista (center) as Monsieur Triquet; edted image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
DiBattista has taken on the “character tenor” repertory, exemplified by such roles as Monostatos [Mizrahi’s Charming “Magic Flute” Production Opens OTSL 2014 Season – St Louis, May 24, 2014] and, at Santa Fe Opera, Goro [Review: A Stunning “Madama Butterfly” Starring Kelly Kaduce – Santa Fe Opera, June 30, 2018] and Scaramuccio [[Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delectable New “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Santa Fe Opera, July 28, 2018].
New York tenor Joseph Tancredi performed the role of a Peasant. Missouri baritone Ethan Vincent was a Captain. Georgia bass Allen Michael Jones was Zaretsky.
Maestro Nicholas Carter, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Australian Maestro Nicholas Carter presided over a lushly romantic reading of Tchaikovsky’s musical score.
[Below: Maestro Nicholas Carter; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
The Santa Fe Opera Chorus, comprised of Santa Fe Opera Apprentices, under the leadership of Iowa Chorus Master Susanne Sheston, were a strong sonic presence.
Director Alessandro Talevi and the New Production
Italian director Alessandro Talevi conceived the new production. Because of consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the production endured fundamental changes from Talevi’s original plans. For an opera in which the chorus plays a major role, the need to restrict the numbers of people onstage required rethinking of the chorus’ part.
[Below: Director Alessandro Talevi; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from InArt Management.]
The solution transformed the opera’s staging. The Santa Fe Opera Apprentices comprising the chorus, instead of gathering onstage costumed as rustic peasants, or guests at a ball, were moved offstage (dressed in basic black) to an area at audience left
The principal singers remained, and so also the dancers, in an opera in which waltzes and polonaises underscore important plot points. With fewer people onstage, the staging took an extraordinary turn, the dancers called upon to take on an expansive and imaginative role.
Abigail Sandler was Assistant Stage Director. Rick Fisher was Lighting Designer.
Set and Costume Designer Gary McCann, Choreographer Athol Farmer and the Wise Fool New Mexico Dance and Gymnastics Troupe
British designer Gary McCann created a unit set that, in Tatyana’s imagination, could represent the interiors of Madame Larina’s mansion or, later, Prince Gremin’s palatial ballroom.
[Below: Set and Costume Designer Gary McCann; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]
The set, intended to reflect Tatyana’s imagination, could open up to a backyard woodland with abundant foliage seasonably turned into autumnal reds and yellows. The presence of trees in what at times represented the mansion’s interiors permitted scenes to shift from “inside” to “outside” from time to time.
With the chorus moved offstage, McCann was tasked with creating costumes for ten principal dancers and various supernumeraries, all members of the Wise Fool New Mexico dance, gymnastics and circus troupe. The Wise Fool New Mexico was familiar to Santa Fe Opera audiences for their part in Handel’s “Alcina” four years earlier [Review – Santa Fe Opera’s “Alcina”: Beautifully Sung Enchantment – July 29, 2017].
[Below: Tatyana (Sara Jukubiak, center right, in yellow gown) is surrounded by guests (Wise Fool New Mexico dancers) at the Larina Ball; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of costume designer Gary McCann.]
McCann’s costumes were inventive and spectacular, with both the male and female dancers in ball gowns and other Wise Fool New Mexico troupe members costumed as fantastic beasts.
[Below: Dancers (Wise Fool New Mexico) wearing Gary McCann-designed ball gowns; edited image, based on a Curtis Brown photograph, courtesy of Gary McCann.]
This was my second opportunity to see McCann’s sets and costume designs realized at Santa Fe Opera [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Glistening “Golden Cockerel” Starring Venera Gimadieva – July 28, 2017]. I also reviewed a performance of a new Mark Adamo opera for which he was also the set and costume designer [World Premiere Review: A Lavish Dallas Opera Production for Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” – December 4, 2015].
[Below: Fantastic beasts and dancers (Wise Fool New Mexico) prepare to dance a polonaise; edited image based on a production photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]
Choreographing the waltzes and polonaises and other dance music was the task of New Zealand choreographer Athol Farmer. The resulting dances added immeasurably to the success of the performance.
[Below: New Zealand choreographer Athol Farmer; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]
The production’s choreography mixed elegantly performed classical dance forms, with such contemporary fare as breakdancing. The choreography was interesting throughout the evening, and especially entertaining during the penultimate scene in Gremin’s palace. There, with Meachem’s Onegin sprawled out on the floor writing the now-married Tatyana a love letter, the Wise Fool New Mexico dancers seemed to be channeling Beyonce in her “Put a Ring on it” video (which would be a quite ironic statement of Onegin’s character arc).
Although this was the first opportunity for me to see a production that Athol Farmer was present to create the choreography, I had experienced the results of his work 13 years earlier when the Willi Decker production that Farmer choregraphed in 2004 of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” was imported by the San Francisco Opera [A Seductive Dream: Runnicles’ “Tote Stadt” at S. F. Opera – October 12, 2008]. In San Francisco the artist singing Frank (and, in the Athol Farmer choreographed dream sequences, Pierrot the Harlequin) was Lucas Meachem!
I enthusiastically recommend the Santa Fe Opera production of “Eugene Onegin” both for the veteran opera-goer and persons new to opera.