A 21st-century classic: Onegin "with the leaves"Review
For serious opera geeks, there are a few touchstone opera productions which are known and talked about worldwide, which each feature one particular element by which they can be identified: the “red dress” Traviata, the Lohengrin “with the rats,” and of course, the Onegin “with the leaves.” These stand-out takes on on favorite operas have a way of becoming required viewing for operaphiles, and thanks to DVD (or, more likely, YouTube bootlegs) they’re readily available.
The Onegin with the leaves, created by Robert Carsen for the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, and its 2007 revival which was released on DVD (and, of course, surreptitiously uploaded to YouTube), was the first Eugene Onegin I ever saw, and and since then, when someone mentions Tchaikovsky’s opera, the image in my head is of a starry-eyed Renée Fleming in a white nightgown in front of a clear blue background on a stage covered in thousands and thousands of gold and orange autumn leaves. Carsen’s production is iconic and a classic and so I was thrilled to learn that it would be coming to Washington, and just as I anticipated, the effect is even more stunning in person than on a screen.
Washington National Opera has made a big deal about the fact that this is the company’s first staging of Onegin in 30 years, and that it would star two Russian singers from the Bolshoi, in their American debuts. With a silky, sultry baritone voice perfectly suited to the title character’s aristocratic aloofness, Igor Golovatenko is a treat for the ears.
Tenor Alexey Dolgov sang with such earnestness and charm, his voice bright and warm from top to bottom, drawing the audience in during his mournful aria “Kuda, kuda”.
Opposite Golovatenko, soprano Anna Nechaeva sang with a luscious, dark voice which, while exquisite in the middle and lower registers where the bulk of Tatiana’s music lies, seemed pinched at the very top during the first half of Saturday’s performance, which culminated in the strenuously long “letter scene,” but she seemed to relax into it after intermission, revealing silvery high notes by the night’s end.
Nechaeva tackled the complex role skillfully, embodying Tatiana’s youthful, dreamy naïveté, before truly coming into her own as the stoic, duty-bound, mature Tatiana of the opera’s final scenes. Her humiliation was palpable as Onegin delivered his famously condescending “sermon,” but glided across the stage in the St. Petersburg ball scene, subtly drawing the eye even while Gremin, exquisitely, and tenderly sung by bass Eric Halfvarson, told Onegin of the happiness he has found in his marriage to Tatiana.
Peter McClintock had the unenviable job of recreating Robert Carsen’s iconic staging, and seemed to take an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” approach.
Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann brought her wonderfully unusual voice to the role of the boisterous Olga. Having heard her in several roles at WNO, I never fail to be amazed at what she can do in the lowest parts of her range. As her counterpart, the doomed Lensky, tenor Alexey Dolgov sang with such earnestness and charm, his voice bright and warm from top to bottom, drawing the audience in during his mournful aria “Kuda, kuda”.
Conductor Robert Trevino made his debut with WNO on Saturday, and under his direction the orchestra sounded warm and rich, if a little imprecise at moments - one such instance was during Tatiana’s letter scene, where the staging has her giddily scoop up the leaves from the stage floor and toss them in the air at a climactic moment, but somehow she ended up just behind Trevino’s downbeat, noticeably dampening the impact of the gesture.
As the stage director for this run, Peter McClintock had the unenviable job of recreating Robert Carsen’s iconic staging, and seemed to take an “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” approach. However the final scene seemed a bit frenetic, and could have benefitted from more stillness and stoicism from Tatiana.
It was probably a foolish move on the part of the Met to do away with Carsen’s strikingly minimalist Onegin after 20ish years, to replace it with a contrastingly maximalist new production, but I’m grateful that it meant we got to enjoy it here in D.C. If this production comes to your local opera house, don’t miss it, even if you’ve already seen it on DVD (or YouTube) 20 times.