The first sign that the eponymous Russian aristocrat in Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” is something less than a quality guy is his tossed-off remark to a would-be lover, Tatyana, that awaiting the recent passing of his uncle was a gigantic bother.
Oh, that would be the uncle who willed his farm and estate to Onegin, a charming idler. Sure, one can see how sitting aside the old man’s deathbed a few days would be terribly inconvenient.
“He’s bored,” says John Moore, who will perform the role of Onegin on opening night of Seattle Opera’s “Eugene Onegin.”
“He’s 26; he’s got money; he’s dipped his toes into different places in the world. He could marry the perfect woman, but he just doesn’t want it. I’m sure there are guys in Seattle with a million dollars but who don’t know what to do with themselves. Not even the Tesla helps.”
“Eugene Onegin” runs Jan. 11-25, and Moore will alternate performances with Michael Adams. The latter was most recently seen in McCaw Hall as Guglielmo in Seattle Opera’s 2018 “Cosi fan tuti.” Moore played the lead in last year’s “The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs.”
Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s 1837 novel of the same title, written entirely by Pushkin in verse, draws upon key scenes from a deceptively simple story featuring characters one might be tempted to dismiss.
But there’s a reason “Eugene Onegin” became not only the basis for this frequently performed opera, as well as countless dramatizations for theater, films (the first in 1911), radio, musicals and ballets. (A thrillingly stark and spooky stage play by Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre — with English subtitles — is available on Kanopy.com, free to anyone with a library card.)
“There is certainly a timeless quality to the story,” says associate director Stephanie Havey, making her Seattle Opera debut. “Something human we can all identify with.”
Young Onegin, unaccustomed to country living, joins his friend Lensky (Colin Ainsworth), a bright, hopeful poet, on a visit to the estate of Madame Larina (Margaret Gawrysiak).
Madame Larina’s laborers have just completed an annual harvest, and are celebrating with dancing, music and wine. Lensky is smitten with one of the Larina daughters, the vivacious Olga (Melody Wilson), and woos her while Olga’s bookish, more reticent sister, Tatyana (Marjukka Tepponen, alternating with Marina Costa-Jackson), grows instantly starry-eyed over Onegin, a striking, seemingly self-possessed figure.
Tatyana’s later, impulsive confession of love for Onegin results in his humiliating dismissal of her feelings. A cascade of tragic developments follows, including a duel and Onegin’s too-late realization he had casually overlooked the exceptional substance beneath Tatyana’s youthful inexperience. She was, in fact, a diamond in the rough.
Pushkin goes to great lengths to complete a nuanced portrait of Onegin as a man with many advantages, spoiled as a boy and now just sophisticated enough to make a small splash in polite society. He eschews commitments and is unmoved by the cyclical rhythms of an agrarian world he reluctantly inhabits as well as the customary chivalry of a formal ball in Act II.
In a way, Onegin can’t see past the next dinner invitation, the next flirtation or any of the ordinary cares of a day. But eventually, the years catch up, and like all of us he ponders the darkness.
Havey says the concept behind Seattle Opera’s production began with the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”
“When we are young, we have endless possibilities. Where we will live, what job we will do, who we will love. As we age and make choices, those possibilities narrow. So this production really highlights that moment in life, later in life, when you stop and look back, and take stock of the decisions you’ve made and examine how those altered the path your life took. If I’d taken a different path, would I have a different life?
“It’s not just Onegin and Tatyana who ask. All the characters are asking in different ways, depending on their different ages.”
In what is arguably the most painful scene in “Eugene Onegin,” Lensky finds himself at an unexpected crossroads. By rights, his entire, unexplored life glimmers before him. By circumstance, he could be robbed of everything at any moment. Given the extent to which Onegin’s emotional recklessness has led Lensky to a shocking fate, Onegin’s final emptiness is all the more crushing.
“He doesn’t have enough tragedy in his life, so he needs to create his own drama,” says Moore. “And his own drama is that he’s stuck in this country life surrounded by people he doesn’t want to relate to. He’s too young to be thinking life is worthless, but he does. And he’s got a lot of life to think about it.”
Seattle is the latest stop for what has been a traveling production of “Eugene Onegin.” Sharing resources, the program began in Kansas City, directed by Tomer Zvulun (whose “Semele” was staged here in 2015). Havey has since taken it to Detroit, Atlanta, Montreal and Honolulu. A different cast and conductor come aboard at each stop.
Making his Seattle Opera debut is conductor Aleksandar Markovic, former music director of Czech ensemble Brno Philharmonic Orchestra.
How does Havey maintain consistency in “Eugene Onegin” between cities?
“The same story, style and important elements are always present,” she says. “But we also want to find a way to feature the different singers and highlight their individuality. We find a way for each new cast we’re working with to identify a personal way to relate to the story. If each person can bring themselves into the story a little bit, the audience feels that authenticity.”
“Eugene Onegin” by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. Jan. 11-25; Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; prices vary; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org