The Edmonton Opera has hit it out of the park with Eugene Onegin. While this opera is set in the nineteenth century, when you look past the period costumes, and the sets, you see a story that has been retold in every artistic medium for centuries. A young woman, Tatiana, falls very much in love with Eugene Onegin, her neighbor that she has known for many years. The normally shy and guarded woman decides to take a risk and tell him how she feels, only to have her heart kicked off a forty foot cliff to burst into a million pieces at the bottom of said cliff. The language Tchaikovsky used when he wrote the opera in the 1800s seems stiff, but you can easily understand that Onegin is brushing her off with the all-too-familiar “It’s not you, it’s me” line. If that wasn’t bad enough, he throws a bottle of gasoline and match off the cliff by telling her “You’re lucky I’m so understanding, you shouldn’t confess your feelings like that. It makes you look bad.” This is an opera I really wouldn’t recommend going to see if you have recently had your heart broken.
The Edmonton Opera has taken on Tchaikovsky’s impressive Eugene Onegin to close its 2012/2013 season. A remarkable work about unrequited love that requires a great deal of commitment on the part of those producing it: this was the perfect way to close the season. I may not be an expert opera critic but from my point of view, sitting at the back on the main floor of the Jubilee Auditorium, the Edmonton Opera executed Tchaikovsky’s ambitious opera perfectly. From the principal roles – operatic proteges flown in from around the world – to the home-based chorus, to the dance companies the Opera collaborated with specially for this performance, to the newly-built set, to the costumes imported from the United States: vocally, visually, and experientially this was a remarkable achievement the Edmonton Opera can be proud of for years to come. This sets the bar high for the upcoming fifiteth season.
The only problems I have with this opera is something I would have to take up with Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky himself, and seeing as he’s been dead since 1893 I’m going to need the help of a serious medium to pick that fight. The first act is very slow and requires a great deal of patience on the part of both audience members and performers. Several arias, and Tatyana’s letter scene in particular, seem gratuitious in their length and seemingly repetitive sentiment. In the entire first third of the opera, I found it difficult to focus. By the end of the second act, however, I was breathless. Somehow in a one-hour span I went from mildly interested to heartbroken. I was grieving, I was bewildered, and I nearly shouted “STOP” as two of the principal actors squared off in the centre of the stage for a duel. As monotonous as the first act may have felt, I was intensely invested in the characters as a result, which simply amplified the whirlwind of emotions conveyed in the following acts for audience members.
It was a privilege to be able to hear a Russian opera sung by native Russian speakers. It made their ability to project emotion through the language and complicated arias, seamless. My hat is off to director Tom Diamond. The chorus did a phenomenal job with this production: it was the first time all season that I anticipated scenes with the chorus as much as I did those with the prinicpals. The sets, particularly in the forest scene during the duel, were so precisely constructed that I felt as though I was genuinely watching real-life events unfold in real time. The costumes imported from two separate opera companies in the United States were beautiful and made this opera look like an increible Hollywood film. The Brian Webb dance company and Shumka Edmonton elevated the caliber of the entire Opera company, adding visual elements which rounded out the performance beautifully. Vocally, each performer had super control and was cast perfectly. The opera experimented with new media, adding video projection to the performance. This seemed unneccessary but it was an interesting addition and challenged traditional opera conventions. All things considered, the Edmonton Opera are leaving their forty-ninth season on a high note (pun intended).
Photograph courtesy of Kelly Redinger