EUGENE ONEGINE at Union Avenue Opera

After the tribulations of the pandemic, Union Avenue Opera returns to its beautiful home. Here, in the nave of the Christian Church on Union Avenue, the company presents first-class opera up close and personal. They open their 28th season with a superb production by Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin.

It was adapted from a verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, the beloved icon and “father of Russian literature”. Tchaikovsky himself wrote most of the libretto.

With a strangely non-operatic plot, Eugene Onegin tells the story of a love that could have been. As in all Chekhov and Turgenev stories that we have loved for so long, the story begins in a country estate of Russian landed gentry. Two charming young girls, Olga and Tatyana, live with their widowed mother. The air is filled with innocence, idleness and boredom. Their quiet lives are disrupted by the arrival of Eugene Onegin, a striking figure – handsome, wealthy, but cynical and leading a useless and miserable life. Onegin is another of those so-called “superfluous men” so ubiquitous in Russian literature of the time. Tatyana is smitten and pours out her heart to Onegin in a letter. When Onegin refuses his offered love, it’s an act of decency, but not without a bit of cruelty – or at least insensitivity.

A few months later, out of pure spite, Onegin plays with the jealousy of his friend Lensky, who is Olga’s fiancé. Lensky’s reaction is surprisingly passionate and he challenges Onegin to a duel. Although both men realize how meaningless it is, the duel continues and Lensky is killed.

A few years later, Onegin and Tatiana meet again, and this time it is she, now married, who rejects Onegin’s love. And so it ends – a very low-key tragedy. Tchaikovsky himself said: “It is true that the work lacks theatrical opportunity…”. Yet in the journeys of these two souls – Onegin in search of meaning, Tatiana in search of love – there is such emotion that their two hearts cross like ships in the emotional night.

Tchaikovsky’s music is wonderfully varied and accessible. He, like many Russian composers, had absorbed the styles and techniques of leading Italian, German and French composers. In this he was “cosmopolitan”. But in Russia, as in other countries, the Romantic era had also brought the desire to give a musical voice to nationalism. Thus Glinka, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and others are inspired by the songs and dances of Russian peasants. In Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky mixes the cosmopolitan with the nationalist to great effect. The fine orchestra is led by founder and artistic director Scott Schoonover.

Maestro Schoonover has once again found world-class voices for his directors. And it’s as if Tchaikovsky wrote each of the three acts to highlight one of these people in particular: Act 1-Tatiana, Act 2-Lensky, Act 3-Onegin.

Tatyana is sung by the remarkable Zoya Gremagin. (Yes, she was born and trained in Russia.) Her voice is what Italians would call a “soprano lirico spinto,” meaning a soprano with the strength and clarity to be easily heard across the sound of choir and orchestra. Her long aria in Act 1, where she writes the letter to Onegin, is a triumph. Her voice is an incredibly beautiful instrument that she has such total and complete control over, yet easy and natural. I could listen to this lady sing forever.

Act 2 gives tenor William Davenport ample room to exercise his glorious voice as Lensky. At the ball, there is a ferociously emotional air when he breaks off his friendship with Onegin; then it becomes a duet, with the participation of Onegin; and finally Tatyana comes in to make it a gorgeous threesome. Before the duel, as Lensky faces death, he sings a moving and sad solo; and then there’s a breathtaking duet with Onegin – the two men on opposite sides of the stage, their voices intertwining in a complex interplay. In all of this, Davenport shines, rising with such ease and power to those golden high notes.

Baritone Robert Garner sings Onegin. Handsome, valiant, cool, he is so good for this role. Garner impressed us all evening with a rich and smooth voice throughout his range. But in Act 3 he is offered such opportunities – vocally in a glorious arioso when, after seeing Tatyana again, he realizes he is madly in love with her; and dramatically as he frantically begs her to return his love. Good work.

Younger Sister Olga is sung beautifully by St. Louis favorite Melody Wilson. Olga is a happy, carefree and light-hearted girl, but curiously Tchaikovsky wrote this role not for a “soubrette” but for a “low contralto”. We have often seen Ms. Wilson do fine work in mezzo-soprano roles; this lower range magnifies the natural drama and seriousness in his voice. Still the prettiest, but not quite the Olga I had imagined.

Basso Isaiah Musik-Ayala sings Prince Grevin, Tatiana’s husband. It has one of the most magnificent tunes in all opera singing of his great love for her. Musik-Ayala is wonderfully at home on these deepest, resonant notes.

Marc Schapman is charming as the French master who sings verses in honor of Tatiana on her saint’s day.

The supporting roles are filled with talent: Debbie Stinson as Madame Larina, Victoria Carmichael as the old nurse, Nathan Brown as the first peasant and servant of Onegin, Benjamin Worley as Lensky and Joel Roger in that of captain.

Exceptionally fine work is done throughout by the chorus.

Director Octavio Cardenas gracefully directs the large cast on this small stage, and choreographer Jennifer Medina offers us both an elegant polish and a charming peasant dance.

The setting, designed by Patrick Huber, is simple and flexible – wide ascending platforms supported by tall birch trees that become pillars in some scenes. The period costumes, by Teresa Doggett, are beautiful and well fitted.

Eugene Onegin continues at the Union Avenue Opera until July 16.

About Madeline J. Carter

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