Homecoming for Carsen’s Eugene Onegin

Better late than never, the Canadian Opera Company have premiered Robert Carsen’s Eugene Onegin, a production originally premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997. It’s a triumph of Canadian talent on all sides, from the sets & costumes by Michael Levine, to the performances of the principals, including Gordon Bintner in the title role, Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana, and Joseph Kaiser as Lensky.  I hoped to see the Toronto boy take a bow at the final curtain although I suppose this show is ancient history.

Conceived long before the Met began their high definition series, I think we’re again seeing a production that’s better in person than at the movies. Although I’m looking forward to seeing it again from up close (my subscription seats are right at the front) this handsome reading of Tchaikovsky’s opera is full of big moments, from the work of the chorus singing, dancing and even raking leaves, to the stunning lighting designed in the original by Jean Kalman (and for the revival by Christine Binder), especially in the duel scene.  The stage picture was well-conceived and an organic part of the story-telling, often stunningly beautiful. I’m glad I was far enough back to be able to see it this way.

Coming in at just under three hours, the time flew by. Don’t miss it.

I didn’t understand Carsen’s minimalist approach when I saw it on TV, but it’s clear now that I’ve seen it on the Four Seasons Centre stage many years later.

I’ve been preparing for this all week, inflicting Tchaikovsky on my household (piano pieces) while reading an English translation of the Pushkin poem as preparation. (here’s the version I read, 170 pages including lots of marginal notes ) I’ve encountered critics opining that Tchaikovsky’s opera is not a faithful response to Pushkin. I’d direct the critics to Carsen, whose reading makes a wonderful case for the opera, especially when you consider this part of his director’s note:

Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s verse novel of the same title, has come to represent Russian character and emotion at its most intense. When Michael Levine and I developed our production for the Metropolitan Opera, we sought to find a poetic response to this most intensely subjective and emotive of operas. Pushkin’s original work, however, is much cooler, distant and critical in tone, and so we also tried –where appropriate—to re-capture some of the distinctive spirit of the original.

Many essays about Pushkin’s work reference Byron. Indeed Byron turns up regularly both in the opera and the verse-novel. In the Fourth Canto Lenski calls Onegin “a true Childe Harold”, invoking one of Byron’s world-weary anti-heroes. Byron’s influence is so huge that Berlioz, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and so many others were all falling over themselves to be more Byronic than Byron himself. A few years after Onegin Tchaikovsky would also write one of his most personal works, his Manfred symphony. Unlike Berlioz (whose Harold in Italy ends in a tumult, the hero and his viola alter-ego drowned out in the wild orgy of brigands that ends the piece) Tchaikovsky would insert a kind of happy ending, a kind of Hollywood absolution for his unhappy Byronic wanderer, a misrepresentation of what Byron wrote to make Nahum Tate blush. If there is a problem with Tchaikovsky and Byronic heroes, it’s simply a matter of his temperament & sympathies. I can’t help thinking that Tchaikovsky likes Lenski & Tatyana much better than Onegin, the Byronic antihero. Perhaps his Manfred symphony can be thought of as a rewrite of the opera, absolving the hero at the last moment.

More fundamentally, though, we have polar opposites, two different personality types that are fundamental to this opera in Carsen’s production, the director capturing something “cooler, distant and critical in tone”. It’s only clear to me now in retrospect, with the help of Carsen’s lucid production that foregrounds two very different approaches to life & love:

  • The direct and spontaneous style of Lenski & Tatyana: at least in her youth
  • The more distant and reserved approach we see from the cynical Byronic hero, Onegin.
  • And one might ask: and what about Tatyana in the last scene? Has she become more like Onegin in her ability to say no to her own desires, detaching herself from her feelings?

The Tatyana of the letter scene and Lenski are romantics in the old-time sense, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, rather than concealing their feelings. The Byronic approach, very much alive and well in the modern era, aka “cool”, is exemplified in Onegin, who only discovers something passionate and romantic in his later encounter with Tatyana: when she’s already married.


Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin and Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Eugene Onegin, 2018, (photo: Michael Cooper)

Gordon Bintner is very likable in a role that’s hard to like. The voice is so rich & full that even when he’s singing softly we get every note & nuance, and when he wants to, he’s the biggest voice in the show, the voice well-produced & never strident or forced even at its loudest. It’s a great pleasure to see him getting his chance at a starring role, one of the strongest recent graduates of the Ensemble Studio program. I hope we see him again, as he brings ample vocal skill, impeccable intonation and strong dramatic skills to everything he does.

Joyce El-Khoury was a favorite of the audience as Tatyana. Hers was a very literary interpretation, well thought out and making a very clear distinction in her performance between the girl and the woman we see in the last scene. I can’t help thinking that we see her through the filter of Carsen’s idea, which is that she is a creature of Onegin’s mind, seeing her in retrospect.

Joseph Kaiser is the third strong Canadian in a leading role, profoundly moving as the poet Lenski. He gave a very subtle & understated reading of the great aria “kuda kuda”. The duel scene—acting, lighting, singing—is one of the most effective creations I’ve seen on a COC stage.

Perhaps most impressive for showing us her range? Varduhl Abrahamyan, who was previously seen in 2016’s Ariodante, the trouser role of Polinesso (remember the scary preacher?), this time, Olga, Tatyana’s outgoing sister.  She could have muttered “and now for something completely different”.

In the TV broadcasts, I didn’t understand what Carsen was doing with the dances in this opera: that is, until I saw them today on a full stage. I now get that his focus was on Onegin, that this is largely a subjective and retrospective reading. So the waltz is danced by the chorus, the cotillion not shown, as we watch Lenski (who’s left behind) gradually coming to a boil, the polonaise not staged because it’s done entirely as Onegin gets dressed after the duel. I love divertissement & the trappings of grand opera, so had been somewhat frustrated in my first encounter –via television—with this production, watching Dmitri Hvorostovsky getting changed when I’d wanted dance instead. Was it a cost-cutting measure? Of course not, but the first time I saw it, I really didn’t get it because I had not seen the invaluable director’s note.

When it comes into clear focus is with the two versions of the Ecossaise. The first version is a bit voyeuristic, as a solo virtuoso pair dance this frenetic piece, watched by the chorus. Onegin sees Tatyana and is inspired by the sight of her, or perhaps more precisely, excited to the point of infatuation. The young girl he rejected is now a woman, a wealthy princess, poised but more beautiful than ever. The scene ends with a reprise of the Ecossaise, this time danced by the entire chorus, as though everyone has caught the erotic fervor of the dance: Onegin sprinting madly through their midst. Perhaps it’s implicit in what Tchaikovsky wrote, but Carsen makes it explicit, with the help of choreographer Serge Bennathan.

There’s a lot more I could say but I’m worried this review is already way too long & academic. I’ll probably write again when I see the show from up close. I should also mention the excellent work of the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, a busy fellow because he’s conducting both of the operas this fall, one a world premiere.

Eugene Onegin continues until November 3rd.  See it if you can.

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