The Lyric Opera of Kansas City opened its 60th season on Saturday with a finely voiced and well-styled new co-production of Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”
Tchaikovsky’ “lyric scenes” trace the history of cynical, dissatisfied Onegin and the turmoil he causes in the lives of three friends. It is not a love story, but rather a questioning of the value of love versus happiness, or torment versus comfort, considering the foibles of impulsive young people with questionable sense of honor.
It is the story of regret.
Director Tomer Zvulun firmly emphasized this ache of regret with an attitude of fading memory and youthful haste. It was an interesting veil through which to view the story, though not every nostalgia-generating device worked. The staging and lighting effects, drawing forth the characters’ inner dialogues, were used to good end.
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Though Act I felt tediously expository, the scenes of Act II were crafted with tension and surprise, and Act III’s resolution finished strong. Soprano Raquel González excelled as Tatyana, transformed from dreamy girl (still tucked in by her nanny) to passion-enflamed women to reserved and respected lady. For Onegin, emphatically played by Morgan Smith, it was reversed, from aloof stranger to dismissive neighbor to groveling suitor. You believe his change of affection, but still side with Tatyana’s pragmatic and honorable decision.
The chemistry between Onegin and Lenksy, though, is the height of the story and the success of this production. Trapped by impetuous folly, their anger and argument is the work’s ultimate heartbreak. Tenor Jonathan Johnson brought rich tone and sense of ultimate loss the role of the tormented poet.
It was a fine cast of singer-actors, from the sweetly naive Olga (Megan Marino), the protective duo of mother (Alice Chung) and nurse (Jane Bunnell), the magnanimous Gremin (Paul Whelan) and humorous Triquet (Steven Cole), making for a solid, authentic performance.
The performance in Muriel Kauffman Theatre was the first viewing of the new co-production, built by the Lyric’s stage crew, and will travel the country to subsequent opera houses. Erhard Rom’s set design, in white and muted grays, conjured the monochrome of far memory with flexibly arranged set pieces framing a backdrop of frosted landscape, chill and distant. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design was essential to the psychological framing of the characters.
Under the baton of Ari Pelto, the Kansas City Symphony proved both bold and sensitive, as necessary, the individual voices of the orchestra threading with the singers in a rich cloth, all savoring Tchaikovsky’s melodies.
The production kept the work contemporaneous to its 19th century origins, allowing the audience to entertain the social ethos of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s time period. Isabella Bywater’s elaborate costuming, the most decorated visuals of the production, and Alison Hawks’ wigs aided this placement in both peasant and aristocratic garb. The chorus performed with robust vocals and attitude (downright threatening in Act II) and danced assuredly to Logan Pachciarz’ choreography.
It is a rare person to have no words or actions of regret, no damaged friendships, no rueful memories. Can we learn to accept love as purely as it is expressed, expunging cynicism and condescension, saving ourselves through generosity of spirit?
Libby Hanssen was quoted by merriam-webster.com (Word of the Day: kapellmeister). She blogs at ProustEatsASandwich.wordpress.com, writing about music and life in Kansas City.
Lyric Opera of KC
“Eugene Onegin” will be performed again Oct. 4, 6 and 8. Visit kcopera.org for more information.