Opera review

She came and she gave without taking, but he sent her away, and boy, does he regret it: Barry Manilow could have stolen the plot of “Mandy” from Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera “Eugene Onegin.” Seattle Opera captures the melodrama of this situation, but not much else, in its production, which opened Saturday and runs through Jan. 25.

Tchaikovsky not only wrote the music, but adapted his own libretto from Pushkin’s 1833 novel, a lyrical examination of love’s cross-purposes among the Russian gentry. Susceptible young Tatyana falls for the title character, the visiting friend of her sister’s fiancé, and pours out her burgeoning passion for the imperious aristocrat that very night in a letter. Eugene lets her down easily (he’s not the marrying kind, he tells her), but comes to regret it years later, when he discovers Tatyana’s married a prince in the meantime. Now it’s her turn to reject him. From the first number, in which Tatyana’s mother and nurse reminisce about the mother’s amorous youth, the composer set up a bittersweet mood of nostalgia and sustained it throughout this autumnal opera, right up until Eugene collapses in agonized remorse at curtainfall.

Seattle Opera Chorus and cast perform “Eugene Onegin.” (Philip Newton)
Seattle Opera Chorus and cast perform “Eugene Onegin.” (Philip Newton)

As the Tatyana and Eugene in opening night’s cast, soprano Marjukka Tepponen and baritone John Moore provide a well-matched pair of solid, handsome voices, but perhaps not quite the chemistry you’d hope for. Tepponen’s performance of the score’s greatest hit, the “Letter Song,” is earnest and heartfelt if not enrapturing. Moore, heard here most recently in February as the title innovator in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” oddly seemed a more arresting presence in that aloof, shields-up role than as the dashing Eugene.

It always comes as a slight surprise that Tchaikovsky composed the role of Tatyana’s flighty younger sister Olga as a low mezzo-soprano rather than for a higher voice than Tatyana, and watching Melody Wilson in the part, it does take a suspension-of-disbelief moment to connect the skipping coquetry you see with the silvery, bottom-of-the-staff warble you hear — especially since Wilson leaves no cliché of stage girlishness out of her performance. As Olga’s fiancé, the impetuous poet Lensky, Colin Ainsworth’s tenor is as clear and warm as a sunny August day, and David Leigh’s earthy bass earned loud, admiring applause for his fervent declaration of love (this opera is pretty much all declarations of love) as Tatyana’s eventual husband, Prince Gremin.

It’s a nice production, don’t get me wrong, but “Eugene Onegin” can offer so much more: more pathos, more atmosphere, more nuance, more magic, more of a sense that something’s at stake in all the heartbreak. (As did Seattle Opera’s haunting 2002 production, for example.) Meredith Arwady provides the best comic relief as the nurse Filipevna, but even here her charm would have been enhanced if the rest of the show had surrounded her with more contrasting gravitas. A couple of obtrusive gimmicks from director Tomer Zvulun don’t help: Two extras representing (I think) Regretful Future Tatyana and Future Eugene wander in and out of scenes creating confusion; and asking everyone on stage to freeze-frame while one character continues a soliloquy is just a staging cliché.

Isabella Bywater’s costumes, all 150 of them, provide pretty spectacle, and lovely backdrops depicting the sweeping, melancholy Russian steppes come from the scene shop of Lyric Opera of Kansas City and scenic designer Erhard Rom.

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But even the Seattle Symphony in the pit, led by Aleksandar Markovic, sounded not completely up to its usual opulence. (I would hate to imagine that Ludovic Morlot, whose recently ended tenure as music director did the orchestra so much good in so many ways, trained out of them any of the dark Russian richness his predecessor Gerard Schwarz had instilled, but I would bet that 10 years ago in this opera they would have sounded like a million bucks.)

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“Eugene Onegin” by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky. Through Jan. 25; Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets start at $35; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org

 

This story has been updated to correct a detail about the backdrops used in the production.