I knew trouble awaited me in the physical production of Tchaikovsky’s Opera in the Heights Eugene Onegin (1879) when I saw the large portrait on the back wall. It looks like an early Stalinist-era propaganda recruiting poster, a kind of Communist Rosie the Riveter. On a red background, the unsmiling comrade, her hair wrapped in babushka, holds a gun. It’s quite large and powerful. What does this have to do with Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Pushkin’s classic verse novel about dreamy romantic love clashing with everyday reality? Well, nothing actually. This is the problem.
Tatiana, the daughter of an estate owner, lives in her world of romance novels. Innocent, she awaits her prince. When introduced to the bored, city-dweller Onegin, she is instantly smitten. It’s her destiny, she sings. Here is the man of her dreams. She writes him a fiery letter, unloading her heart and laying bare all her feelings for him. Unfortunately, he despises her affections, humiliating her. He could love her like a sister, nothing more. Tatiana is crushed.
At Tatiana’s birthday party, Onegin cheekily flirts with his best friend Lensky’s fiancée, Tatiana’s younger sister Olga. He wants to tease Lensky for bringing him to the suburbs where the rubies live. Onegin’s prank causes Lensky’s jealousy to turn into deadly fury. Recklessly, he challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills him.
Years later, Onegin, guilt-ridden but still bored with life, returns to Russia and meets Tatiana at a grand ball. She’s no longer the innocent young dreamer, she’s a grand, wealthy and sophisticated lady, married to an older honored soldier. Now Onegin is hit. He is in love for the first time in his dissolute life. He writes her a fiery letter declaring his undying love. But she, full of honor that Onegin does not understand, repels him. Although she still loves him, she does not smear his marriage vows. It is also his destiny. And his. She banishes him from her life, leaving him utterly desolate and destroyed.
Probably the most misguided of all OH shows, Onegin looks awful. Even being nice, the production is lousy. By setting this story in Communist times instead of Imperial Russia, director Andreas Hager undermines the social commentary of the story and throws Pushkin’s irony out the window. The countryside is represented by a line of dried wheat that resembles a seedy Tiki bar, indistinct side panels that point to nothing, and a moving screen that rolls and inadvertently covers the staircase, hiding one of the dramatic entrances.
The door upstairs is too low and two actors banged their heads as they entered. The serfs, carrying cigarettes and coffee mugs, could be remnants of a bus and a truck Carmen, and their mufti of the proletariat looked like a mistake. The end of the fatal duel (or the strangulation contest in this staging) takes place behind the translucent screen, which is a nice touch – probably the only skillful touch of the entire evening. At the grand ball, some singers wore dresses, while others stood in the background with black balaclavas. Nothing made sense; there is no staging; there is certainly no dramatic cohesion.
The worst offense is the gaze of Onegin. Even though it’s set in communist Russia, this man of the world, dripping with neat attitude, should at least wear some type of uniform – a powerful and successful party man. In a gruesome artistic decision, he’s dressed in a tee and sneakers. With his tousled hair, boyish look and slightly woodsy demeanor, baritone Thaddeus Thorne looks like he just stepped out of a boy band. He is supposed to be a man of the world; older and cold; someone out of Tatiana’s league; not a contemporary. This renders Pushkin’s and Tchaikovsky’s intention useless.
But thankfully, the vocals dissolve any objections we have to the finicky visuals. Thorne, although he seems a bit awkward on stage, has a clear, strong voice, and he pulled off Onegin’s searing declaration of love with abandon and ardor. Katy Lindhart as Tatiana, though restrained in her expressions and directed to prowl back and forth across the stage in her pangs of love, was a vocal revelation. Her famous “letter scene” was sung with brilliance, a Russian banquet full of girlish delight, indecision, and then resolute desire. The voice is there in spades; all it needs is a director to direct it.
Tenor Dane Suarez, as the fiery Lensky, could probably be heard on Heights Boulevard. He has a powerful pole and in intimate Lambert he shook the rafters while creating a rounded character. His air of farewell to the world was extremely moving. Mezzo Naomi Brigell had a fresh voice and a fresh face like Olga Dew, whose playfulness leads to the death of her fiancé. We never know what happens to him, but we can be sure that his fate is not happy.
Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s husband, has an air, an ode to married life, but it’s one of the most handsome in the rep. Jason Zacher sang it with heartfelt conviction and a sumptuous tone. Jarrett Ward, tenor of the OH choir, made a delightful appearance as the Fey French Triquet, who hosts Tatiana’s birthday party. Mezzos Laura Coale and Molly Burke, as Tatiana’s mother and nurse, Filipevna, made an impression with their rugged, plummy sound. Their folkloric duet about past lovers and past regrets launched the opera on a very promising note.
Maestro Eiki Isomura conducted an OH emotional orchestra and choir, completely immersed in Tchaikovsky’s lush romanticism. The strings needed a little more rehearsal, but the winds and horns were stirring. of Onegin the “lyrical scenes in three acts and seven tableaux” flowed like the Neva, and whoever adapted the score into this more zip-drive version, which eliminated some choruses and minor scenes, did a masterful job.
Onegin, written before and after Tchaikovsky’s disastrous fictional marriage, is his first opera success. He loved the human voice and made all his melodies – orchestral ones too – so they could be sung. Eugene Onegin audaciously sings of youthful dreams shattered and deferred, and adult realities made painfully apparent and full of regret. If you close your eyes, Opera in the Heights is Tchaikovsky’s pride.
This may be the last opera performed in Lambert Hall, OH since its inception in 1996. Heights Christian Church is for sale, the property of which includes the original sanctuary, Lambert Hall. It seems unlikely that the developers will keep the old building or build a theater space inside anything that might be developed on the site. OH has been ordered to move by July. Feisty and scrappy, OH has been a Houston staple for 26 years. He may have to move, but I think he will survive. It’s unclear where it’s going, but it’s too valuable a home for up-and-coming singers, orchestral musicians and its devoted patrons to fade away. Opera is eternal.
Eugene Onegin continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 3; 7:30 p.m. Friday April 8; and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Ruby’s cast (soprano Nicole Keeling as Tatiana, baritone Garrett Obrycki as Onegin) performs April 3-8. Masks optional. For more information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $34.50 – $84.50.