Eugene Onegin has sharp contemporary vision

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      By Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky, based on the novel by Aleksandr Pushkin. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, November 22. Remaining performances on November 27 and 29

      Vancouver Opera’s ravishing new production of Eugene Onegin is the best of both worlds: lush period piece and sharp contemporary vision. Director Pamela Berlin’s take satisfies opera fans’ desire to lose themselves in a historical story, yet shakes off every last speck of dust.

      Designer Neil Patel’s Czarist Russia is a play in contrasts. When we meet the shy country girl Tatyana, the warm, reddish light of sunset peeks through row upon row of iconic birch trunks, creating a deep, skewed perspective that manages to be both hyperreal and abstract. By the time Tatyana’s beloved bad boy, Eugene Onegin, is drawn into a duel, the stage is a cold, spare wasteland sprinkled with snow. And the second act’s St. Petersburg ballroom is as icy as a frozen Stolichnaya, a silvery-grey tableau of cutout chandeliers and flat pillars to suggest aristocratic faí§ades. The entire proscenium is boxed in a gigantic, antique-gold-leafed frame, as if an Ilya Efimovich Repin portrait had come to life.

      The emotionally real performances also make this production feel modern. Baritone Brett Polegato’s Onegin is the consummate cool customer, dashing and remote, a man who refuses to kiss the ladies’ hands and spurns the young Tatyana for professing her love so openly to him. It’s a testament to Polegato’s range that when he finally meets Tatyana again, he’s a mess-burying his face in her lap and crying out in agony when she accuses him of desiring her because she’s joined high society. He’s a cad and a misfit, but you can’t help feeling for him in the end.

      Another standout is tenor Oleg Balashov, who plays Vladimir Lensky, the man who challenges his friend Onegin to a duel for flirting with his fiancée. The Russian brings an added richness to his rolling mother tongue. Befitting the romantic character, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, whether he’s aching aloud in “Where have the golden days of spring gone” or hissing the Russian equivalent of “dishonourable seducer” at his rival.

      Eugene Onegin is often referred to as Tatyana’s opera, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Abbotsford-born soprano Rhoslyn Jones has a sweet and effortlessly mellifluous voice, but she’s not quite as brooding as she could be as the lonely bookworm. In the final act, when the tables turn on Onegin and she portrays an older woman wiser to the ways of men, you crave more of a transformation, and more passion. Still, in the crucial early “Letter” scene, where she recklessly decides to reveal her true feelings for Onegin, her outpour of girlish fear and excitement is spot-on.

      The simple story’s rich complexity extends from the dreamy, concertolike score, handled expertly by maestro Jonathan Darlington and his orchestra-from Tchaikovsky’s signature fluttering flutes and strings right down to the opera’s blasts of outrage.

      This is the first time Vancouver Opera has staged Tchaikovsky’s classic since 1985, and this original production is proof of the company’s commitment to honouring the old while blazing into the new. It’s well worth the wait-and well worth catching before it disappears for another quarter century.