Lyric’s “Eugene Onegin” speaks of regrets, missed opportunities

Morgan Smith & Raquel Gonzalez by Cory Weaver for Lyric Opera

There is a certain cathartic melancholia that Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin brings upon the reader; one leaves it with a sensation of empty rooms and long silences. In Tchaikovsky’s operatic treatment, the great composer does a marvelous job of meeting the mood of the story, condensing it (with the help of Konstantin Shilovsky) down into a three-act set of “lyrical scenes”. The result, a mainstay of lyric opera, was on display last night as the Lyric of Kansas City premiered its new season.

The story follows the eponymous Onegin (Morgan Smith, Bar) as he follows his friend the poet Lensky (Jonathan Johnson, Ten) to the home of Madame Larina (Alice Chung, Mez). Lensky is in love with her daughter, Olga (Megan Marino, Mez), an outgoing-bubbly sort of girl. Her sister Tatyana (Raquel Gonzalez, Sopr) is more reserved, “bookish”. Nevertheless, she falls swiftly for Onegin and quickly realizes that she is in love with him. He rebuffs her advances, letting her know that he is not the settling-down kind. Later, at a ball at Larina’s home, Onegin (who was dragged there against his will by Lensky) gets his revenge by dancing with Olga the entire night. Incensed, Lensky challenges him to a duel, at which Onegin accidentally kills his friend.

Flash forward five years later. After years of aimless wandering, Onegin finds himself back home again. Attending a party thrown by his friend Prince Gremin (Paul Whelan, Bass), he is shocked to discover the prince’s new wife is none other than Tatyana. Realizing he has quite fallen for her, he attempts to woo her away from her husband, but is ultimately rebuffed and left alone with his regrets.

The lyric has assembled quite a good company for this production. Ms Marino (whom some will remember from Hansel and Gretel) plays Olga as a light and bubbly girl, only just on the cusp of womanhood. She and Johnson’s voices blend together particularly well during the duet in Act I. Ms Gonzalez brings real depth to the character of Tatyana, bringing her ably from girl to woman. It’s not often we get to have a baritone as the central figure, but Mr. Smith does an excellent job in taking the reins of the role. This reviewer would also like to make a special note of Steven Cole (Ten), whose appearances in Lyric productions are always welcome and always memorable.

The scenic design is minimal, but sufficient — the Lyric seems to be getting better at the use of painted translucent backgrounds. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design certainly doesn’t hurt matters either. The orchestra ably takes us through Tchaikovsky’s score under the baton of Ari Pelto, here making his Lyric debut. The performance went smoothly overall, with the only real complaint being in the opening scene with the older Tatyana (Cynthia Hyer), standing over the memory of her younger self, is obscured by a tree, somewhat diluting the moment.

Experience teaches us that life is a slow accumulation of regrets, and that freedom basically means choosing which bad decisions we shall come to rue in time. Onegin learns — too late — that all things being equal, it is better to regret chances taken than thrown away. Anyone who has found themselves alone in a suddenly-all-too-quiet room will understand.