An abiding interest in Russia has led Washington National Opera’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, to liven up her company’s highly traditional repertoire with works from Eastern Europe. Glorious and starry productions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and The Maid of Orleans have faded from Washington’s musical memory since they appeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Placido Domingo led the company. So, too, have the well-received Washington operatic visits of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, which depended on the largesse of the disgraced financier Alberto Vilar, who was recently released from U.S. federal prison after serving eight years on multiple fraud counts.
Tchaikovsky’s other great opera, Eugene Onegin, has returned to Washington after an absence of more than thirty years. Beloved in Russia and beyond, the opera is an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s maudlin novel in verse about the eponymous main character, a vain young man deprived of any purpose in life by a delightful mixture of privilege and authoritarianism. After an inauspicious visit to a neighbor’s country estate, he haughtily rejects the naïve, young Tatyana, who has a hopeless crush on him. Lamenting his boredom years later—at the advanced age of twenty-six—he finds that she has blossomed into a poised and ravishing beauty who will not leave her aged husband despite still loving Onegin. Along the way, he flirts with her sister—his best friend Lensky’s fiancée—and ends up in a duel in which he kills Lensky. At the end of the story, we are led to believe that he will spend the rest of his life trying to get over it, suffering compounding grief.
My personal joke is that it would really only take Eugene Onegin about four minutes to get over his grief, but this observation is usually greeted by the opera’s devotees as some kind of sacrilege. Even more than Pushkin’s novel, Tchaikovsky’s opera is regarded as a Russian classic, an “encyclopedia of Russian life” that both reflected and shaped many aspects of Russia’s national culture and character. In an attempt to participate in this tradition, one Washington socialite distributed a special species of red rose named in honor of the late Librarian of Congress and Russia specialist James Billington.
Even more than Pushkin’s novel, Tchaikovsky’s opera is regarded as a Russian classic, an “encyclopedia of Russian life” that both reflected and shaped many aspects of Russia’s national culture and character.
Robert Carsen’s sparse and coldly received production has reached Washington some twenty-two years after premiering at the Metropolitan Opera, where it was replaced by an even worse new production in 2013. The disappointments remain. The unwalled interior sets are surrounded by piles of dead leaves, perhaps signaling a lack of vitality, but really just creating a distraction. The costumes are not quite right—the uniform black dresses make the ball scenes look more like funerals. Replacing Act III’s introductory polonaise with a bizarre pantomime of Onegin being dressed by a team of valets never did work in the place of an actual dance. At intermission, the patron lounge gossips ruminated on why the national opera company cannot seem to come up with very many original new productions.
The evening’s major artistic draw was the company debuts of the two principals, both young Russian singers performing in America for the first time. The baritone Igor Golovatenko has been rising in the Verdi repertoire and may be a credible heir to the late Dmitry Hvorostovksy. Onegin is a perfect fit for their shared vocal type, as Hvorostovsky’s performances amply proved before his untimely death. Golovatenko has a smooth, rich instrument and real star power in his acting. His Tatyana, the soprano Anna Nechaeva, rose in the lesser theaters of St. Petersburg and recently found an entrée to the Bolshoi in Moscow. Her voice is not unappealing and radiates a certain warmth, but it notably lacked power throughout the evening. This proved fatal in the essential “Letter Scene,” in which Tatyana pours out her heart in an epistle to Onegin, and in the finale, in which she tells him to get lost. As Lensky, Onegin’s ill-fated friend and dueling opponent, Alexey Dolgov also struggled through much of his part but came appealingly alive in the celebrated aria that precedes his death at Onegin’s trigger finger. The stalwart Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba ably sang Tatyana’s mother, known only by her last name, Larina, and Eric Halfvarson sounded appropriately aged in the role of the enamored but clueless Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s eventual husband. Robert Trevino led a sluggish performance, really only pulling the orchestra together well for the opera’s appealing dances.
The evening’s major artistic draw was the company debuts of the two principals, Igor Golovatenko and Anna Nechaeva, both young Russian singers performing in America for the first time.
It is unclear where Zambello will take her interest in exploring the Russian repertoire next. The 2019–20 season features no hint of continuing this recent trend in her artistic planning. But perhaps, with a lot of Russian talent around and an unyielding Russian buzz in the news, we may see something of Prokofiev or Shostakovich, or—if she really wants to be daring—lesser-known works by Russian composers who never really found audiences in the West. Why not Alexander Serov’s Judith, which originated the tradition of star Russian bass roles and features a proto-#MeToo moment? That opera has not been performed since the time of the Russian Revolution, which led to a regime that was not too keen on biblical subjects, but it is definitely better than Kevin Puts’s Silent Night.