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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

EUGENE ONEGIN (the Cliff Notes)

 Edwin Joseph and Emily Margevich
(photo by Russ Rowland)

Last night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, we attended the premiere of Tchaikovsky's heartbreaking opera Eugene Onegin, performed by Heartbeat Opera (no relation);  at least we heard a 100 minute adaptation of the opera. The co-adaptors were Director Dustin Willis and Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth who also conducted the chamber orchestra.

We have been writing about Heartbeat Opera since their inception ten years ago (under different leadership-- by Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard). They have always put a unique spin on the classics, some of which thrilled us and some of which dismayed us or puzzled us.  This production had some very rewarding moments, some insightful ones, and some puzzling ones.

Chief among the delights was the singing. Soprano Emily Margevich made a believable and touching Tatyana. In the lengthy letter scene, she showed us all the unbridled passion of an adolescent girl with all of  its concomitant terrors. She reminded us of Juliet in the early scenes of the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, almost dancing around her bedroom, trying to put her wild thoughts into words. It was a commendable performance.

As the "older man" she falls in love with (probably an older man of twenty-five) we found baritone Edwin Joseph thoroughly believable and as fine in his singing as was Ms. Margevich.

Flirtatious sister Olga was finely realized by the excellent mezzo-soprano Sichel Claverie and as Olga's devoted fianc√© and childhood sweetheart Lensky, we thought tenor Roy Hage performed admirably, delivering a poignant "Kuda, Kuda". Also fine were Shannon Delijani as Madame Larina and Tynan Davis as Filipyevna, the nursemaid. Rounding out the cast was Lloyd Reshard, Jr as Prince Gremin.  More about him later.

Spoiler Alert! If you plan on seeing this production, and we hope that you do, you may want to stop reading here, especially if you are new to this standard of the Russian repertory. One difficulty for us was making the effort to block our memories of prior productions and comparing them. Still, we couldn't help seeing the falling Autumn leaves as Madame Larina and Filipyevna peeled apples or potatoes in the opening scene nor could we not hear in our mind's ear the chorus of peasants in the background, here omitted.

In this production, the nearly bare set made use of wooden frames and planks, metal step-ladders, and reams of fabric. One could see right through the performing area to a kind of workshop/storage room "backstage". The two older women were busy doing something we couldn't make out and Madame Larina appeared to be pouring something from a flask and drinking.  Vodka perhaps.

For the name-day scene, a raised platform was erected right in front of the audience with an abundant buffet set up upon it. Olga, dressed as a clown, sings the aria usually sung by the French tutor Monsieur Triquet. At this point, the chamber orchestra (comprising strings, French Horn, Clarinet doubling on Bass Clarinet, Harp, and Guitar) goes mad, out of tune and cacophonous with electric amplification. Perhaps this is to mark the flip from pleasant drama to tragedy as Olga flirts with Onegin, angering Lensky who then challenges Onegin to a duel.

Equally. puzzling was in the final act, when Prince Gremin sings his aria into a microphone (!) and then is wheeled off like a dressmaker's dummy (!!).

There are a number of liberties taken with the opera, chief among which is the subtext of a homosexual relationship between the two men. Was this "concept" suggested by the director? It is no secret that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that he himself received a letter from a pupil whom he later married to no good effect. But does that mean that his stories have a homosexual subtext? There are a few scenes between the two men that were unconvincing and if Mr. Willis wanted to persuade us that Lensky's jealousy was directed differently than in the Pushkin verse novel upon which the opera is based, he failed.

There were several other puzzling episodes. What was the intent of having Maestro Jacob Ashworth interact with the singers, at times abandoning his post, so to speak? And watching the singers participating as stage hands constructing and dismantling the set?

The final scene, in which Onegin tries to persuade Tatyana of his love, is staged in a frame, reminding us of a marionette theater. The rest of the cast and some of the musicians are watching. When she bids him to get up, it is not an Onegin begging for her love, but an Onegin who has pressed her to the floor and lain on top of her. And then, off to the side, a bereft Onegin is cradling the dead Lensky in his arms.

Those puzzling moments aside, a good case could be made for an abridged version of the opera. Tchaikovsky's libretto uses much of Pushkin's text from the latter's verse novel, but he also altered certain things which one could learn from reading the original. So the current revision is not an insult. However it would have been better had it made theatrical sense. 

As far as the alteration of the music, lots of classical works have been altered or re-orchestrated and symphonic works have been reduced; we were not disappointed in this case.  As much as we love the orchestral original, the arrangement was interesting and the melodies we know and love were preserved. We cannot tell from the program who was responsible since the program indicates  Dan Schlosberg under "newly arranged".   Our guess is that Mo. Ashworth newly arranged the music and Mr. Schlosberg might have newly arranged the libretto with "co-adaptors" Mr. Willis and Mr. Ashworth.

We spoke to some women after the performance, women who had never seen or heard the opera. They loved it. Much can be said for a "virgin experience".

© meche kroop

1 comment:

  1. I was there last night and it made perfect sense to me. Also, you realize the microphone was not on, it was a prop. Here's an insightful review that clearly understood the production and lays out quite nicely its effect: https://www.theatermania.com/news/review-a-eugene-onegin-fueled-by-secret-gay-love_1736593/