OPERA NEWS - Eugene Onegin
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In Review > North America

Eugene Onegin

Lyric Opera of Kansas City

In Review Kansas City Eugene Onegin hdl 1017
Raquel González, Paul Whelan (Prince Gremin) and Morgan Smith in Tomer Zvulun's production of Tchaikovsky's opera at Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Photo by Cory Weaver for Lyric Opera of Kansas City
In Review Kansas City Eugene Onegin lg 1017
Jonathan Johnson and Raquel González, Lensky and Tatiana
Photo by Cory Weaver for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

TO OPEN ITS SIXTIETH anniversary season, Lyric Opera of Kansas City debuted a striking new production of Tchaikovsky’s one true opera masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, which captured much of the power of this idiomatically Russian but ultimately universal tale (seen Oct. 4). Stage director Tomer Zvulun opted for a largely conventional staging, with no wild leaps in time or place. He put the focus on clear-cut storytelling and eye-grabbing crowd scenes, enhanced by lively social dances and other movement smartly conceived by choreographer Logan Pachiarz. The sumptuous costumes by Isabella Bywater and the elegant scenery by Erhard Rom tastefully conveyed the continental opulence of the country’s rich gentry in nineteenth-century Russia.

Dominating many of the scenes was a spectacular thirty-by-sixty-five foot backdrop, painted by Lyric Opera scenic artists Gen Goering and Regina Weller, which depicted a sprawling wheat field and the vast Russian sky. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel suggested varied times of day with subtly changing tinges of color across the painting’s monochromatic expanse. Particularly striking was the opening scene, when the farm workers filed along the back of the stage between the panorama and trunks of birch trees that stretched floor to ceiling and then joined in vibrant celebration.  

Zvulun’s main conceptual conceit was emphasizing the opera’s theme of life’s road not taken by placing an older version one of the two principal characters at the beginning of each act; they silently look upon their younger selves. It’s an interesting if not completely original idea, but the execution was a bit heavy-handed: the specter-like figures lingered too long. Elsewhere, during crowd scenes, the director froze the group action several times to focus on specific characters, a technique that was especially effective in Act II, when Lensky angrily confronts Onegin.

Kansan soprano Raquel González, who made her Lyric Opera debut as Tatiana, has a full, lustrous voice with a nicely flowing line, but she did not offer stage presence to match. Tatiana’s big Act I letter scene, was disappointing: it lacked the needed frenetic impetuosity and emotional intensity. Morgan Smith, a full-voiced American baritone also making his Lyric Opera debut, offered a solid if not outstanding Onegin.  

The production’s most memorable singing was by tenor Jonathan Johnson, an agile, fresh-voiced tenor from Georgia, who was making his role debut as Lensky. Johnson drew the biggest ovation of the evening with his aching performance of “Kuda, kuda,” the Act II aria before the senseless impending duel with Onegin. Completely at home in this first-time role, Johnson’s Lensky was ideally matched by mezzo-soprano Megan Marino’s Olga. The two were completely convincing as a young couple in love, lighting up Act I with their romantic frolics. Marino, who first appeared with the Lyric Opera in 2016 in Hansel and Gretel, is a gifted actress with a strong, appealing voice graced by a rich lower register. New Zealand-born bass-baritone Paul Whelan, who made his Lyric Opera debut with his first Prince Gremin, was notable for his sure-footed technique and comfortable embrace of the character. Mezzo Jane Bunnell was another standout as the nurse, Filipyevna.

In his Lyric Opera debut, conductor Ari Pelto drew the best from the pit orchestra, composed of musicians from the Kansas City Symphony. Aided by the embracing acoustics of the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the ensemble delivered an involving, full-bodied take on Tchaikovsky’s fetching score, with plenty of instrumental highlights, such as the handsome woodwind solos during Tatyana’s letter scene.  —Kyle MacMillan 

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