You can’t talk about Spoleto Festival’s Eugene Onegin opera without discussing birch trees. They are as much a character as the titular Onegin and his hopeless admirer Tatyana. Dropping from the gorgeous theater’s fly space, the set pieces magically transform into a vast Russian forest so convincing it’s easy to forget they’re paper and wire. The trees shift and move based on the action — circling into a small grove during quieter scenes, then branching out to encase the full chorus (played by Westminster Chorus) during others. I almost felt as if I was in the Urals a la Dr. Zhivago. And thank goodness for that because beyond some interesting video projections, the birch trees make up the bulk of the two and half hour show’s set design. I suppose that is just the nature of opera. We’re not here for big spectacle effects. The show is about the voices onstage and if you’re into hearing world renown singers give a marathon performance, then Eugene Onegin is for you.
Tatyana (Natalia Pavlova) carries the production as the country girl who falls for pompous city slicker Eugene (played by Franco Pomponi). She bares her soul to him after falling in love with the man at a dance, but Eugene rebuffs her, and the pain of the rejection was palpable in each note soprano Pavlova hit. When I interviewed the singer, she said when she goes on stage she isn’t thinking about her lyrics or stage directions, rather she becomes the character and that was entirely evident last night.
Equally impressive was Tatyana’s sister Olga played by Krysty Swanna. While her role is small, Swann stole many a scene and I would have loved to hear more from her. When Onegin cruelly teases Tatyana by dancing with Olga, Olga’s love Lensky becomes furious, and Olga and Lensky’s fight in song displayed Tchaikovsky’s clever score.
Act II concludes with the jealous Lensky challenging Onegin to a duel and you can guess what happens next … there’s a death scene that’s about as overly dramatic as what you’d expect from a 19th century opera. While Jamez McCorkle who plays Lensky has an incredible voice and presence, his stage direction in this scene left something to be desired.
But that’s where my qualms end.
Eugene Onegin is a stirring piece of theater and director Chen Shi-Zheng deservedly received a long standing ovation at the conclusion of the production. Would I have liked a little more stage direction to fill the space? Sure. But what Eugene Onegin lacked in movement, it more than made up for in song.