The storyline for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin revolves around the losses of love and life, and thematically centers on regret and nostalgia, but the Santa Fe Opera’s production is anything but wistful. Rather, a soaring orchestra and beautiful singing, combined with breathtaking sets and costumes, coalesces into a thrilling and often propulsive show.
Tchaikovsky based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse, published serially starting in 1825 and as a stand-alone work in 1833. The plot, at least at its outset, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel. Two teenage sisters, Olga (contralto Avery Amereau in her SFO debut) and Tatyana Larin (soprano and 2007 Santa Fe Opera apprentice singer Sara Jakubiak) grapple with their romantic feelings for the friendly affectionate Vladimir Lensky (tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, also in his SFO debut) and the stuffy and reserved Eugene Onegin (Grammy-award winning baritone Lucas Meachem, who last performed at the Santa Fe Opera for 2009′s Don Giovanni). The opera opens with the sisters at their estate in the Russian countryside, a setting brought to life by an opened back wall displaying a golden hill and, of course, New Mexico’s actual night-sky horizon (this opening tableau, like the rest of the opera, owes much of its impact to lighting designer Rick Fisher).
Amereau perfectly captures Olga as a flirtatious young girl, happy to play with her fiancé Lensky’s over-bearing affections. But Tatyana, more dreamy and bookish than her sister, immediately falls for Onegin and pours her heart into a letter to him declaring her feelings. Onegin, in turn, rejects her and advises her to guard her feelings more carefully lest others take advantage of her openness.
In Act 2, the four attend a party for Tatyana’s name-day, at which Onegin—who jadedly finds parties tedious—dances with Olga, prompting an argument between Lensky and Olga, as well as between Lensky and Onegin. The two friends end up in a duel neither wants and Onegin shoots and kills Lensky. In the third act, years have passed and Onegin attends yet another party, this time at the home of Prince Gremin (bass James Creswell in a terrific SFO debut), who turns out to be Tatyana’s husband. Now, it is Onegin who pours out his feelings: regret and love—for Tatyana. But she tells him that, despite her continued love for him, she will not betray her husband.
Jakubiak mesmerizes in Tatyana’s letter scene, alternatively poignant, heartbreaking and passionate, matched at every moment by conductor Nicholas Carter’s orchestra. Meachem portrays Onegin as commanding and conflicted, a captivating performance that brings depth to a character who might not otherwise prompt much sympathy. Jakubiak and Meachem replaced married couple/singers Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis, two of this season’s international performers unable to attend due to visa restrictions. These late substitutions for the two major roles seemed (upon announcement) as though they might be problematic, but were forgotten from the moment the performances began as Jakubiak and Meachem had such a strong palpable connection on stage.
Vocal and acting synergy, however, was pronounced in several of the duets and quartets, such as the first act’s music of remembered love sung between the daughters and mezzo-sopranos Katharine Goeldner (their mother Larina) Deborah Nansteel (their nanny Filipyevna), as well as Meachem and Nurgeldiyev’s tender duet prior to their fatal duel.
While the facts of the plot remain simple, several aspects of this production directed by Alessandro Talevi (in his SFO debut) capture both its lyrical subtext and perhaps some of the societal critique from Pushkin’s original work. A marked one is the placement of the opera’s chorus to the left side of the audience. The singers, dressed in black—all masked á la COVID-19—fill the opera house with their voices (under the direction of chorus master Susanne Sheston), but onstage, silent dancers, choreographed by Athol Farmer in his SFO debut, embody their songs. These dancers, some of them Wise Fool New Mexico performers, don masks—fencing masks, skeleton faces, antlers—blurring the lines between reality and fantasy; past and present; consciousness and dreams. Scenic and costume designer Gary McCann’s work make this show a must-see. The peasants in the opening scene wear what look like up-cycled farm clothes and accoutrement. In the ball scenes, party goers display elaborate bedazzled gowns, bejeweled skull faces: greens, golds and rubies—glittering and ominous. These visual representations capture the fundamental themes of Pushkin’s lyric novel and their enduring relatability, while imbuing them with a contemporary aesthetic.
Eugene Onegin premiered in 1879 at the Maly Theatre in Moscow and was first performed by the Santa Fe Opera in 1978, which means it’s impossible to spoil the ending: Onegin submerses in a despair of his own making. But in this rendition, he does not go out with a whimper—leaving the audience with the same heady excitement that propels the entire production.
8:30 pm, July 28
8 pm, Aug. 6, 12, 20, 26
Limited tickets available with dynamic pricing ranging from $36-$300s
Simulcast tickets range from $100-$125 per vehicle
4 pm, Aug. 2, Opera in the Park, free pre-recorded performance at Villa Linda Park
Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly named Matt Haskins as the lighting designer; Haskins also was unable to participate due to international travel restrictions.