N.C. Opera: Eugene Onegin
Meymandi Concert Hall
Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016

We mostly know Tchaikovsky for a handful of symphonic works—ballets, symphonies, concerti and a few overtures thrown in for kicks. Those pieces are so overexposed, so drilled into our collective musical consciousness that it’s hard to approach them with anything near freshness.

But the North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Eugene Onegin last weekend presented an opportunity to hear something by Tchaikovsky with new ears. While it is one of the few Tchiakovsky operas to enter the standard repertory in the West, it still doesn’t get performed with the regularity as, say, the Nutcracker or the “Pathetique” Symphony.

This opera retells Pushkin’s epic poem about the tragic relationship between Onegin and Tatiana. Onegin is a world-weary, rakish figure. When Tatiana meets him, she immediately falls in love, writing a passionate letter (in one of the opera’s most famous arias), only for him to harshly reject her. At a ball a few months later, a bored Onegin seduces his best friend Lensky’s fiancée, Olga, who is also Tatiana’s sister. In the resulting duel, Onegin kills Lensky.

Fast forward a few years to a ball in St. Petersburg: Prince Gremin introduces Onegin to his wife, who Onegin recognizes as Tatiana. He falls madly in love with her and confronts her. She declares she still loves him, but she won’t leave her husband. She walks off, Onegin dejected. Curtain falls—or at least it would have fallen, had this been a fully staged version. Though the singers acted and interacted, they largely stood in front of the orchestra in suits and gowns. The only props were a pair of pistols and a pair of letters.

The role of Onegin is peculiar. He doesn’t seem to do anything affirmatively at any point in the opera. He is so bored of everything that he just reacts; he is notably the second voice in the canon before the duel. He doesn’t sing any arias of substance until the final act, and even those feel like perverse simulacra of Tatiana’s first act professions. (There is certainly something creepy, at least, about one of his lines to Tatiana at the end of Act I—“I love you like a brother … but perhaps a bit more.”) It’s as if Tchaikovsky doesn’t believe Onegin has any genuine emotions, so he doesn’t give him anything much to say. Even Gremin’s aria about how much he loves Tatiana rings more true. But maybe this is only my post-modern take on an old tale.

At any rate, Joo Won Kang projected Onegin’s necessary arrogance for the role and managed to operate within all of these registers.

Joyce El-Khoury (Tatiana) and Eric Barry (Lensky) stole the show, though. El-Khoury has incredible range and color, and she especially shines when she drops down to a sumptuous pianissimo, which glistened Sunday over the orchestra. Her version of the letter-writing aria embodied Tatiania’s mixture of doubt, passion, and vulnerability. She seemed to levitate at the aria’s climax. Barry, meanwhile, makes a great tragic tenor, with a dripping upper register that projects uncertainty. Both were making their second appearances with the N.C. Opera, and I hope to hear them with the Opera again soon.

The rest of the cast—a mix of newcomers (Zanda Švēde’s Olga), returnees (Kenneth Kellog’s bottomless bass as Gremin) and veterans (Robynne Redmon and Victoria Levengood, suitably over the top as Madame Larina and Filippyevna)—were well chosen. Artistic and music director Timothy Myers has a great ear for singers and manages to bring so much exciting rising talent to the area. His interpretation of the music felt confident and in control, as he led a solid, if occasionally rough-around-the-edges orchestra. The chorus sounded great, too, switching with ease between chatty gossip, silly children’s songs about pelting boys with berries and full-throated, technicolor Russian folk song.

Hearing Tchaikovsky unencumbered by the weight of the canon was a rare treat—enough to make me wonder what his other dozen operas are like.