This is not your typical opera review.
As the child of parents who met at Indiana University’s renowned School Of Music, I grew up listening to classical music. I learned at a very early age to appreciate the complexity and the simplicity, the beauty, and the drama of symphonies and overtures and arias. When I was a senior in high school, my parents went to Tina Turner while my boyfriend and I went to the symphony. Later, another significant other and I saved our pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters until we could purchase the boxed CD set of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I love music of all genres, but classical and opera hold a special place in my heart.
I see many, many shows now in my effort to find and support local music, but my classical concert experience has been limited to an annual visit to Ravinia with Mom and Dad and Son and a fluke invitation to “Samson et Delila” at Lyric Opera four years ago.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend Lyric’s performance of Eugene Onegin. I wasn’t familiar with the work, but since I’m a fan of the genre in general and Tchaikovsky specifically I seized the chance to review an opera as just a regular person who enjoys the experience. My guest was a good friend of mine who’s had five years of “classical/neopolitan vocal training,” with opera as the majority of that training. I invited him so that I could get a perspective on the actual quality of the performance, since I’m such a neophyte all I could contribute in that aspect would be “good” or “not so good”. He needs to remain anonymous because, as the lead singer of a rock band, this would completely ruin his street cred.
“Mr. X” and I met for dinner at Emil’s where we enjoyed delicious and perfectly prepared New York Strip and Lamb Chops. As curtain time neared the formerly packed restaurant emptied out and we crossed Wacker Drive with the other opera goers. We took our seats, Row M Seats 1 and 3. The lights dimmed, the overture began, and the curtain rose on a stark white stage with a lone tuxedoed man barely spotlit and off-center.
This was not what I was expecting. Where was the elaborate set? The rich colors? The painted background depicting the landscape that transports the audience to another place and time? This was Opera. This was set in Russia.
This was set in Russia. Rural Russia in the 1800’s. And that’s part of the story, that Eugene Onegin is forced to return to this drab and dreary place with its pedestrian folks and their boorish ways. Although I knew this ahead of time the sparse production was still a shock, but it did serve to set the scene for an opera based on performance and emotion.
Following are the basic storyline and our thoughts on the opera itself and the performance. Fortunately with opera, there are no “spoilers”.
We’re introduced to mother Larina and sisters Tatyana and Olga. Olga’s engaged to Lensky, who is friends with Onegin. When Lensky calls on Olga with his friend in tow, Tatyana meets Onegin for all of about five seconds and falls madly in love with him. That night she stays up ’til dawn pouring her feelings out into a letter and coerces her servant into delivering it to the rogue. His response is basically “There, there little one. That’s very sweet but I can’t be tied down.”
Mr. X and I agreed that the letter scene was really over the top, until we realized that this was set in the 1800s in an area where there wouldn’t be a lot of marriageable men for a young lady. Still, the suspension of disbelief was a little difficult to achieve for me, but I’m sure that’s because I’m chronically single.
I was surprised that intermission came so quickly. Mr. X thought it was almost overdue. He also pointed out that while all of the women in the theater were awake and leaning forward, he and a couple of other guys were the only men not nodding off. We headed downstairs to get some coffee. Note to future opera goers: don’t drink too much before attending. The line for the ladies room looked like it could stretch around the outside of the enormous building a couple of times. Plus, it’s more fun to people watch.
It’s Tatyana’s name day so there’s a big party. Onegin is bored to tears and blames Lensky for bringing him, so he flirts and dances with Olga like a petulant brat. Lensky is fuming, but he can’t do anything until Tatyana’s tutor is done serenading her. Then he confronts Onegin like any wounded suitor with an ounce of pride would do, and ends up challenging him to a duel. Guess who loses.
Of course Lensky dies! He’s the good guy and the romantic. Plus, when I’d taken the backstage tour the guide mentioned that operas are tragedies, so that means somebody dies. I couldn’t feel too sorry for Olga, either, since she’d willingly succumbed to Onegin’s charms.
Years later Onegin’s at a ball in St. Petersburg hosted by his cousin, Prince Gremin. Imagine his surprise when he sees Tatyana, regal, poised, and mature, and finds out that the innocent he rebuffed is married to his cousin. Now, of course, he falls madly in love with her and writes her a crazy letter full of protestations of undying passion. At first she strongly resists, then she confesses she still loves him, but in the end she walks away.
Men. I swear. You always want what you can’t have. OK, so maybe women do, too, and that’s why Tatyana fell for Onegin in the first place. Anyway, I was really rooting for her when she called him out on his sudden desire. She basically told him “you just want me ’cause you can’t have me.” She almost lost me when she said she still loved him, and I was a little ticked with her because I didn’t want her to fall for the bad boy when her Prince was a good guy. In the end, she made the right choice and Onegin was left with his bitter memories. (Let that be a lesson to ya’.)
As we left the Civic Opera House, I asked Mr. X what he thought of the performance. While we both felt that Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s (Onegin) projection could have used some more force behind it, Mr. X was impressed with his tone and control “when moving from chest voice to head voice. It was smooth in the sense that you never really heard any real shift in vocal power, and any crescendo sounded clean and natural.”
We both thought that Frank Lopardo (Lensky) was the better actor of the two and his singing was more emotional. But Mr. X commented that after thinking about it some, and I have to agree with him, that was intentional. Lensky suffered more. As Mr. X said, “The idea of being betrayed by your best friend and your wife calls for a great deal more anguish than simply being lonely.” He also said that “both vocalists were flawless, pitch-wise, and they did complement each other nicely.”
Eugene Onegin may not have been what I expected, but I walked out into the chill night air knowing I’d witnessed something beautiful and moving. I can still picture Tatyana as she throws herself on her bed with her first experience of unrequited love, and feel Lensky’s anger as he pushes Olga away after her betrayal of him, and sense the “if only” bitterness when Onegin realizes that he’s lost any chance at happiness.
Opera speaks to everyone, with its universal themes of love, loss, a little comedy, and more tragedy. When those themes are set to sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-wrenching music, they’re communicated in a way that, arguably, no other art form can master so completely.
Lyric’s season comes to a close at the end of this month. There are still a few more performances of Eugene Onegin (with Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin) and The Barber of Seville and they all have available seats.
(And gentlemen, if you’re looking to impress a lady, take her to dinner at Emil’s, then stay awake during the opera! You’ll earn brownie points for weeks.)
Eugene Onegin: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Lensky: Frank Lopardo
Tatyana: Dina Kuznetsova
Olga: Nino Surguladze
Lyric Opera, 20 S Wacker Dr
Emil’s, 101 N Wacker Dr, (312)332-4333