An inexplicable chill blows through Curtis Opera Theatre’s production of Eugene Onegin, onstage at the Prince Theater. Although director Chas Rader-Shieber’s intimate approach rightly foregrounds the important themes of honor and obligation, he forgets that passion runs hot in Tchaikovsky’s 1879 masterpiece.
Despite several well-judged performances from the young, game cast, a much-needed thaw never arrives.
Siberia of the heart
Rader-Shieber and scenic designer Adam Crinson set the entire opera — which occurs in various locales, including the gilded society of St. Petersburg, Russia — within a barren, abstract, vaguely postapocalyptic snowscape. A miniature dollhouse suggests the opulent grandeur of the Larin estate, which we never see; the balls, private communications, and romantic trysts happen amid mounds of slush and scattered white books. Mike Inwood’s sensitive lighting works overtime to vary the banal mood, as one scene shifts to another with little contrast.
The production whittles the three-act opera down to two intermission-less hours, thanks to judicious cutting. This is Onegin as chamber opera, and in theory, that strategy should work. I didn’t miss the seemingly endless couplets sung by otherwise insignificant Triquet in Act Two. And focusing solely on the principals should allow for a level of intimacy and character development that can seem smudged in larger, grander productions. That’s hugely important for an opera where complicated interpersonal relationships of all varieties drive the plot.
But this approach eclipses another important element of the work: how the responsibilities of class, social status, and respectability influence every decision the characters make. Eugene Onegin casts himself as an iconoclast, never comfortable inside the high-society structure of his birth. He undertakes reckless actions to provoke his well-heeled companions, often with tragic results.
In contrast, simple, pure Tatyana pines for Onegin from their first meeting, but enters into a loveless marriage with noble Prince Gremin after Onegin coldly rejects her. Her sense of duty won’t allow her to leave her marriage once Onegin finally admits he shares her feelings.
In Rader-Shieber’s production, these moments unspool as private revelations. That may seem a valid choice for a more modest interpretation of the work, but I missed an overarching sense of the individual chafing against societal expectations that comes when the opera is performed with a full chorus. (Also lost is the power of the chorus commenting on their actions.) We know instinctively that Onegin acts out of self-destruction and Tatyana from selfless commitment. This production seems to merely remind us of that fact every few minutes.
Perhaps these choices would have worked better if there was more passion. But little chemistry radiates from Doğukan Kuran’s Onegin or Tiffany Townsend’s Tatyana. Their performances remain largely one-note, despite subtle shifts in power and status that occur between the first scene and the last. And at no stage of their relationship — from casual flirting to full-throated declarations of love — do they convince as a potential couple. Rader-Shieber directs them to sing as little of their music to each other as possible, even during the opera’s white-hot final scene, when long-stewing emotions break the surface.
It doesn’t help that both possess bantamweight voices. Kuran’s baritone has a pleasant tone, but he frequently turns inaudible, swept up by the bombast of Joseph Mechavich’s orchestra. Townsend’s mid-sized soprano warms up by the final scene, but she sings with more vibrato than I’d like to hear here. Townsend also struggles to spin out the extended lyrical passages that define Tatyana’s famous “Letter Aria,” in which she pours out her longing for Onegin.
Musically and dramatically, the most committed performance comes from Evan LeRoy Johnson, as doomed poet Lensky. His muscular, almost baritonal tenor soars above the orchestra in “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” (“Where have you gone, my golden days of spring”), Lensky’s bittersweet acceptance of his unavoidable death.
Russian native Anastasiia Sidorova brings idiomatic flavor to Olga, Tatyana’s flirty sister. Mezzos Siena Licht Miller and Amanda Lynn Bottoms sing warmly and memorably as Tatyana’s resigned mother and devoted nurse. Bass Adam Kiss overcame some initial cragginess to deliver a heartfelt “Lyubvi vsye vozrastï pokornï” (“Love does not respect age”), in which Prince Gremin describes his affection for Tatyana to Onegin.
The opera ends with Tatyana’s devastating rejection of Onegin, which echoes his traumatic dismissal of her years earlier. It’s a moment that should be shattering. Here, like so much else, it feels sterile and cold. Curtis’s Onegin begins and ends in winter, and there’s little to do but freeze.