"Eugene Onegin" may be an idea whose time has finally come in the United States. Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, Tchaikovsky's opera of thwarted love, ritualized violence, social pressures and pretensions finally looked and sounded like what it has always been: one of the three or four greatest operas of the Romantic era -- perhaps the most intense embodiment of romantic passions and poses that has ever reached the operatic stage.
It was, remarkably, the third opportunity this year for Washington audiences to see "Onegin," which was brought here in the spring by the Metropolitan Opera and was telecast on PBS last month in the Chicago Lyric Opera's production. Both of those presentations were excellent. The Washington Opera's production (using the magnificent sets and costumes designed by Pierluigi Samaritani for Chicago) was spectacularly better -- as close to perfection as one can expect an opera performance to be.
Even the usual opening-night problems of timing and coordination were held to a minimum. Under the firm, knowing direction of conductor Maxim Shostakovich and stage director Gian Carlo Menotti, the opera took on a special vitality, with dozens of small musical and visual details that gave an unusual sense of depth. The entire cast, including nine solo singers, was well chosen and in top form. There were virtuoso performances by soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the heroine Tatiana and tenor Jerry Hadley as the poet Lensky, not to mention Geraldine Decker, who made a splendid effect in the tiny role of the nurse Filipevna. But it was not primarily an evening of solo glory; it was the kind of well-controlled ensemble performance one expects in the Terrace Theater but hardly dares hope for in the Opera House.
This "Onegin" is the Washington Opera's best work in the Opera House since its current "La Bohe me" was introduced several years ago. Like that production, this one achieves a clear superiority over a similar Metropolitan Opera presentation.
One reason "Onegin" is an idea whose time has come is the use of surtitles -- simultaneous translations of the libretto flashed on a screen above the stage. These have enhanced audience involvement in previous productions where the text was in Italian, a language relatively easy and familiar to the hard-core opera fan. Texts in Russian have previously been a serious obstacle to enjoyment of operas by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Now, with surtitles, that obstacle is dissolved. The enhanced, detailed verbal clarity reinforces the efforts of the singers, conductor and stage director and gives the whole work an integrated impact that is impossible when the audience has to wonder exactly what is being said.
The easiest way to measure the impact of surtitles is through the audience's audible reaction to comic lines. These are not frequent in the dark, brooding atmosphere of "Eugene Onegin," but there are a few in the first two scenes, delivered by Filipevna and providing an ironic background to the opera's story of all-out, thwarted romantic passion. In Scene 1, the nurse and Tatiana's mother (ably played by Judith Christin) sing a duet on domesticity with the refrain: "Habit is a gift sent by nature to take the place of happiness." That drew a laugh, as did the nurse's reply in Scene 2 when Tatiana gushed the revelation that she was in love: "When I was young, we'd never heard of love." The laughs were partly a tribute to Geraldine Decker's outstanding characterization, but mostly they were a clue that, for once, the audience understood the punch lines.
This understanding is equally important, though not as readily displayed by the audience, in more dramatic moments. There is keen psychological insight in the long, enormously challenging "letter" monologue, where the 17-year-old Tatiana bares her girlish soul after falling in love at first sight of the world-weary Onegin. There is heartbreak in Lensky's Act 2 aria when the young poet, about to die in a duel with his best friend, meditates on what has gone wrong. There is a special, spare verbal texture (matching the stripped-down musical lines) in the canonic duet of the two adversaries in the duel scene: Two men's voices singing the same words to the same musical lines, deeply separated although only a few notes apart, until finally the two voices come together in the repeated last words: "Nyet! Nyet!" There is a special geriatric grace in the birthday tribute to Tatiana, sung in French by Monsieur Triquet (perfectly played by Jonathan Green), and a deeply human warmth in the aging Prince Gremin's aria about the difference his young wife has brought into his life. All these qualities are in the music, but the music's impact is multiplied enormously when the words become clear.
It was also multiplied by the quality of performances from the entire cast Saturday night, even in the smallest roles. Eric Halfvarson, for example, who is also singing the Commendatore in "Don Giovanni," has the even smaller role of Gremin in "Onegin" -- only a few minutes, but minutes of glory. Halfvarson rose fully to the occasion, as did Vladimir Ekzarkhov in the even smaller role of Zaretsky.
But the highest honors go to the principal members of the cast. Hei-Kyung Hong was musically dazzling and totally believable as Tatiana, a role in which she must make the transition from an impressionable teen-ager to a mature married woman between Acts 2 and 3. Jerry Hadley sang with rich, clear tone and perfect control while projecting the complex character of Lensky larger than life. As Onegin, baritone J. Patrick Raftery was somewhat overshadowed by the soprano and tenor in the first two acts. This is an occupational hazard of the role -- a cool, aloof man surrounded by flamboyant romantics -- and his interpretive strategy paid off in the ironic final scene, when Onegin is the belated romantic, rejected by a mature Tatiana, who is trying hard to keep her cool. Raftery's final moments, alone on the stage and succumbing to total despair, were all the more effective in contrast to his earlier coolness.
One of the finest voices in the whole well-sung production is that of Cynthia Munzer in the role of Olga. Her characterization of Tatiana's lighthearted sister (who drives Lensky to despair and, ultimately, death) was excellent; her costumes could profit from a bit of refitting. The chorus, which begins the opera as a group of peasants and is promoted to provincial gentry in Act 2 and St. Petersburg socialites in Act 3, sang splendidly in all three roles. The chorus' acting was good, but its level of dancing seemed more appropriate to the down-home birthday party of Act 2 than to the big-town glitter of Act 3.
Menotti's stage direction featured the same inspired use of supernumeraries (particularly children) as in his "La Bohe me," but there was one miscalculation: A child screams during the opening duet, providing interesting thematic overtones but disrupting a moment of musical beauty. This effect should be reconsidered.
The conducting of Maxim Shostakovich is idiomatic and powerful. Those who are not yet acquainted with "Eugene Onegin," one of opera's rarest masterpieces, are not likely ever to have a better opportunity.
It will be repeated Nov. 8, 11, 13, 17 and 19.