By Patrick O’Brien
Is there such a thing as an uncommon man?
Not uncommon as in “unique,” but “above the strictures of man and his emotions?” Nietzsche thought so; Rand thought so; Alfange thought so; unique thinkers, all.
But then come their detractors: Who wants to be uncommon, to hold themselves to such a grandiose standard? Russian writers—their country being both famous and infamous for its shunning any notions of uncommonality—at least had a term for self-styled uncommon men: “superfluous.” All the Byronic devil-may-care attitude, none of the colorful backstory to justify it. Seeing the world doesn’t make them worldly anymore than standing in a stable makes them troika horses.
Only by the end of his novel and opera does the supposedly worldly and above-it-all Eugene Onegin suffer—feel—but, per opera, only when it’s too late. The uncommon man is humbled. Not redeemed, merely humbled.
Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera, faithfully adapted from Alexander Pushkin’s seminal verse novel, is as Russian as it gets: Even at its most bubbly, its waters run deep, much as Onegin might rather like to pretend otherwise. He would prefer a world where he could make gentlemanly art out of spurning admirers and flirting with any man’s fiancée for the sport of it.
“Artful but empty,” therefore, proves rather apt in describing Lyric Opera’s revival of Robert Carsen’s production (recreated by Paula Suozzi), and the results are thrilling.
His overall concept proves that, sometimes, the simplest direction is the best direction. There’s an enclosure—a circle cleared of autumn leaves, or a square of parlor chairs, or a dueling ground—and no one strays outside of it. With some exceptions. Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecién) can stray because he holds himself as an outsider. His winsome admirer Tatiana (Ana María Martínez) can stray because her flights of passion free her. Her fated husband, Prince Gremin (Dmitry Belosselskiy), notably does not stray; he is an uncommon man who is humble.
These are not details easily missed, considering the hollow expanse provided by Michael Levine’s great white box of a set. Christine Binder’s lighting is equally as striking in its simplicity. That fateful duel — the dumb and perhaps immature end of Onegin’s flirting — is conducted entirely in silhouette against a frosty blue, where nothing but the flash of gunfire is clear.
Kwiecién inhabits Onegin confidently, having sang the role before. Handsome yet aloof, and, later, disquietingly void, but his voice, a sturdy rugged instrument, never falters. Martínez, meanwhile, sings Tatiana for the first time, and, if not of fullest voice, she brings the flush of youth to the Letter Scene — the character’s shining moment, and arguably the opera’s — and the chill of sensible maturity to the finale.
Charles Castronovo, meanwhile, walks off with the opera’s other arguable centerpiece, the farewell aria bade by Lensky, the doomed ex-friend of Onegin’s. Jill Grove delivers a fine wry and weary turn as Tatiana’s beloved nanny. And a nod to Miranda Borkan, Jacob Ashley, Randy Herrera, and Jacqueline Stewart, whose dancing turns, though brief, flash with the spirit Onegin denies himself.
Alejo Pérez is the last name of the day, making his American conducting debut. Tchaikovsky, superbly rich and melodic, more than meets him halfway to guide him, but he directs the pit with great sensitivity.
It’s a handsome return for a rapturous opera about a provably ugly attitude.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Eugene Onegin” through March 20th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Todd Rosenberg .