Les feuilles mortes

Lyric Opera of Chicago concluded its 2016-17 season (at least the opera part of it) with a spellbinding and wonderfully sung production of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Eugene Onegin

Using the much travelled and much discussed minimalist Robert Carsen production (you know, the one with all the leaves and all the chairs that began at the Met), revival director Paula Suozzi has brought much life and lots of new touches to the proceedings. The sets and costumes of designer Michael Levine looked fresh and spiffed-up, and nothing about this revival seemed tired or worn.

Debuting conductor Alejo Perez led an exciting reading of Tchaikovsky’s lushly romantic score, with faster than usual tempi but a great sense of texture and detail. In Tatiana’s famous Letter Scene, Perez led the shimmering strings in a glorious depiction of the agitation of her emotions as she prepares to write that fateful letter. It was a properly emotional reading of a highly emotional opera, and the result was both moving and affecting.

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez, always a powerful and moving singing actress, delivered a lovely and poignant Tatiana. Still, I had the feeling that the role was not a great vocal fit for her—the voice was always fine, but didn’t seem to really bloom until the final act, when Tatiana has gained in maturity and wisdom.

But her acting was spot on—I shall not soon forget her coltish leaping about the stage in the Letter Scene, tossing leaves into the air in an expression of pure joy at Tatiana’s first taste of romantic love. When she reappeared in the final act as the wife of Prince Gremin, her surprise and longing at seeing Onegin again were palpable. And the emotional agony in the final scene, where she rejects Onegin and decides to stay with her husband and honor her marriage vows was wrenching.

Tenor Charles Castronovo was a sensitive and vulnerable Lensky, singing throughout with honeyed tone and plaintive passion. His aria that precedes the duel scene, “Kuda… kuda” was a model of stylish, beautiful singing and garnered the largest ovation of the evening, reminding this reviewer of the young Neil Shicoff in the role.

The handsome Castronovo was also no slouch in his acting performance, giving us a Lensky both passionate in his love for Olga and furious in his simmering jealousy. There was a real desperation in Castronovo’s Lensky, and it made the duel challenge make perfect sense.

Alisa Koloslava made a very impressive American opera debut as Olga, charming and vivacious, and the voice was always impressive in size and purity of tone. The stentorian Russian bass Dmitry Belosselsky gave impressive presence to the gorgeous aria of Prince Gremin, though the final low notes were lost in the orchestra.

The always-impressive Jill Grove as Filipyevna and Katherine Goeldner as Madame Larina were delightful in their matronly affection for their wayward daughters. Tenor Keith Jameson was a too-small voiced Triquet. In the tiny role of Zaretsky, Lensky’s second in the duel, bass Patrick Guetti had a sit-up-and-take-notice powerful and cavernous bass. I think we’ll be hearing much more from this Ryan Opera Center member.

Happily, this brings us to the fine Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, cutting a glamorous figure and presenting an unusually sensitive Onegin. His potent vocal work never wavered or faltered, singing with brilliance and phrasing with aplomb. His voice and acting were especially powerful in the final act, where the travelled and deeply bored Onegin rediscovers his passion for Tatiana and tries desperately to woo her away from her husband Prince Gremin. I doubt there’s a better Onegin on the world’s stages today.

A few production moments were troublesome, particularly the powdered-wig valets changing Onegin’s clothes for the ball scene in full view of the audience. It simply went on too long, and though I’m sure many in the audience were happy to see the shirtless Kwiecien, it seemed gratuitous and not a little vulgar.

I also got rather tired of the use of the scrim, particularly in the Duel Scene, when the entire thing takes place in shadow—we never even got to see Mr. Guetti’s face! While colorful and interesting varied, Christine Binder’s lighting seemed too dark throughout, though I much appreciated the stark white light that lent an appropriate coldness to the final scene.

As always, I must commend the fine work of the Lyric Opera Chorus under Michael Black’s exceptional leadership. In this opera, they were called upon to do significant choreography as well as singing, and they worked splendidly.

This has been, overall, one of Lyric Opera’s finest seasons in many a year. Casting and singing in small roles has been unusually fine. Let’s hope this continues into the 2017-18 season, where casting seems significantly more “iffy”, though I’m all are excited about Christine Goerke in Die Walkure.

Photo by Stefany Phillips.