There is always excitement in the air for an opening night, but doubly so for the first performance of a season. Opéra de Montréal’s 2019-20 opened with a captivating and beautifully sung production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, his 1879 opera based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin.
The novel and opera oscillate between risk and regret. Seventeen year-old Tatyana takes the risk of revealing her love to not-much-older-but-more-worldly Onegin, then suffers from his rejection. Her sister Olga flirts with Onegin risking the jealousy of her fiancé Lensky, while Onegin flirts back out of anger with Lensky, risking their friendship. Just before the two men fight a duel to settle the matter, they both regret the steps they are about to take, but irrational, testosterone-filled honour wins the day. All experience regret when Onegin kills Lensky. Finally, Onegin risks revealing his love for Tatyana years later when she is now married and high up in society, and although Tatyana still loves him, she rejects him. These are lives full of deep human regret.
This oscillation is well played out in the mise en scène. Erhard Rom’s set and Claude Accolas’s lights move between confined and open spaces. All three acts open with either an older Tatyana or Onegin centre stage in a greenish metallic light, the side walls pulled in tightly with a scrim curtain behind them. The characters are looking back on the past—regret again—and as the scenes begin, the walls pull out while the curtain reveals an open countryside behind them. The first scene reveals about a dozen tall birch trees affecting a prison-like feel as the two sisters sing their opening duet. They are trapped in their social roles with omens of things to come. After Onegin rebuffs Tatyana, he escorts her behind the trees to look out over the vast fields, almost a taunt to her imprisoned experience as rejected lover.
Sometimes the mise en scène mixes the confined and the open, using the curtains, walls and lights in various combinations. This occurs most notably in the final scene of the opera when Onegin rushes in from the expansive outside into the closed confines of Tatyana’s house. After rejecting him as he did her five years earlier, she leaves through the door into the prison of her house and future life, leaving Onegin stuck in the liminal onstage, the in-between. He cannot follow her but must go back out into the world of his loneliness, the bleak world reminiscent of the snowy duel scene, the most visually expansive scene in the production. Perhaps the open outside world is its own cage. Nice touch.
Australian Nicole Car as Tatyana and Montrealer Etienne Dupuis as Onegin are riveting in their vocal and acting presentations. Both are powerful and subtle, dynamic and delicate when the character and music call for it. They have a magnetic chemistry that goes beyond being a couple in real life. OdM is using this as part of their marketing, including a joint interview with the two in the program, but that certainly is not the only reason for their connection on stage. They’re just good.
Canadian tenor Owen McCausland sings and performs Lensky with a deft hand. His aria before the duel is particularly touching and exquisite. OdM Atelier singer Spencer Britten (Canada) stands out in the role of Monsieur Triquet, sweetly serenading Tatyana for her name day celebration while performing magic tricks.
The orchestra under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire were in good form for the opening and the rest of the cast and chorus were solid. Kudos to the chorus for their movement and dancing abilities. Most impressive.
Stage director Tomer Zvulun’s concept and blocking is interesting and engaging. The utilization of stylized (non-realistic) movement with the chorus is a forceful choice, but it did not come together cleanly and felt out of place, since it is used only in the second act (OK…a little bit in the third as well). The chorus surround Onegin, pointing accusing fingers, hounding him across the stage, finally driving him out. I regret (see, I do too) the curtailed ballet in the beginning of Act III. We hear it mostly as an orchestral moment until the very end when the chorus enters, dances a bit and the scene moves on. It is wonderful Tchaikovsky and can for sure stand on its own, but it felt like a missed opportunity. I am not advocating a full-out balletic moment, but perhaps more exploration of the stylized quality from the second act would have been interesting. Not enough rehearsal time in a tightly budgeted medium?
My regrets and nit-picking aside, this is a thrilling opening to the OdM and a harbinger of good opera to come this season.
Opéra de Montréal presents Tchaïkovsky‘s Eugene Oneguine
September 14, 17, 19, 22
Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier – Place des Arts
175 Saint-Catherine St, Montreal, QC H2X 1Y9
(514) 842-2112 | www.operademontreal.com
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