Cast finds the emotional heart of Eugene Onegin at the Vancouver Opera Festival

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      By Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. A Vancouver Opera Festival presentation. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday, April 29. Continues on May 3 and 5

      The team behind Vancouver Opera’s new Eugene Onegin knows the key is to perform it “truthfully, sincerely, and simply”—to borrow Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s own words.

      After all, there’s not a lot of plot to fall back on in the opera based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse. And in this production, there’s not a lot of high-concept design to distract, either (unlike the stark and frosty contemporary vision the VO presented in 2008).

      No, it’s the very straightforwardness that works so well here: amid the rich orchestrations and lyricism, the pure human emotion is allowed to flow through. This is in huge part due to the young Russian leads’ heartfelt performances and to the depth and feeling in outgoing maestro Jonathan Darlington’s conducting.

      Directed by Tom Diamond, Eugene Onegin really transports you to 19th-century St. Petersburg, when class and custom come into play, as young country girl Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova) falls in love with a bored rich neighbour, Onegin (Konstantin Shushakov).

      The long first act is full of peasant folk dances and harvest celebrations, but there’s huge emotional payoff in two important intimate scenes: Tatyana working up the nerve all night to write a love letter to Onegin, and Onegin patronizingly giving her the brushoff. (His words “Your sincerity is charming” stab her like a knife.) Singing in their rolling mother tongue brings added authenticity.

      Shushakov nails the broody, arrogant character who will come to regret his actions. He’s matched by a wonderfully passionate and full-voiced Vladimir Lensky (Alexei Dolgov) and a smart, complex Tatyana, who pulls off a flawless, expressive final aria that shows her character’s inner conflict and transformation. Other highlights include an incredibly intense duel scene, set before a skeletal tree on the slightly raked stage’s snowy field, and a showstopping aria by Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze as Prince Gremin, the aging war hero who has married Tatyana.

      Tim Matheson

      Through it all, Darlington and the VO orchestra explore all the textures in Tchaikovsky’s score, applying a feather-light touch to the reapers' first country song, finding the foreboding in the frenzy of strings that launches the duel scene, and making the waltzes truly dance.

      The chorus adds equal colour to the score, with some of the most adorable little peasant girls you’ve ever seen dance across the stage.

      The opera is not devoid of contemporary stagecraft: black-and-white film projections of gathering clouds and Onegin, sometimes contemplating Tatyana’s letter, sometimes considering the pistol he keeps in a box. Though perhaps superfluous, they do provide moody, old-cinematic atmosphere to the musical interludes, as well as helping glue the episodic acts together and showing the titular cad’s more sympathetic side.

      But this is not the production you go to for conceptual hocus-pocus or contemporary retelling. It’s a show that revels in the emotional landscapes of its characters and the details of its intricately embroidered score. And—if you can stomach a disco reference in an opera review—oh, those Russians.

      Eugene Onegin will be the last opera maestro Jonathan Darlington leads as music director at VO, though he will return as conductor emeritus next season.
      Tim Matheson