When Robert Carsen’s production of “Eugene Onegin” opened at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, many people were vocal about how much they hated it. It was too spare, they said, and the singers’ voices got lost on the vast empty stage. By the time the production was replaced in 2013, however, the collective wisdom had changed and it was universally beloved — a status shared by a number of Carsen’s other distinctive, thoughtful productions, and a status it should have enjoyed all along.
Seeing it this weekend at the Washington National Opera, where it’s the vehicle for the company’s first production of the work in more than two decades, was a chance to reappraise its merits with the extra focus of knowing it may be the last time — productions can’t last forever. As directed by Peter McClintock, it held up well.
Tchaikovsky didn’t even call his “Eugene Onegin” an opera but rather “lyrical scenes” — seven of them, drawn from the epic poem by Pushkin that is to Russian literature what Goethe’s “Faust” is to German literature, or Shakespeare to English. Carsen keeps both “lyrical” and “scenes” front and center. It is lyrical in its luminous lighting and the use of a few telling objects — a line of five tree trunks, a row of chairs — to create a setting. And its restraint keeps a sense of fluidity and lightness to the evening, rather than corseting it in the formal sets of grand opera.
For its casting, WNO went Russian: Two of the leads were making their debuts not only with the company, but also in the United States. Both Anna Nechaeva, who sang Tatiana, and Igor Golovatenko, who sang Onegin, are regulars at the Bolshoi in Moscow who have sung around Europe; Golovatenko will make his Met Opera debut in “The Queen of Spades” this fall. They offered solid and idiomatic performances, and you could do a lot worse in this repertoire. But neither of them ripped me from my seat in excitement. Golovatenko sang with solid lyricism and long legato lines, and he well incorporated the absorbed anti-hero who rejects the young Tatiana’s naive love and kills his best friend, Lensky, in a duel over a silly misunderstanding he himself provoked. Nechaeva was lovely and affecting as her character transforms from an innocent girl into an urbane society beauty, but her voice failed to fully bloom, remaining a little thin and sometimes drifting a shade flat.
Also Russian was the tenor Alexey Dolgov, who has appeared several times at WNO and was a capable Lensky, singing firmly — particularly in the pre-duel aria that is one of the opera’s highlights — with an approach more conversational than lyrical. Lindsay Ammann did a fine job as Olga, Tatiana’s sister and Lensky’s fiancee.
Where the production excelled vocally was in its veterans. Victoria Livengood, the American mezzo, was fabulous as the old nurse; Elena Zaremba was elegant and faded as Madame Larina, the girl’s mother. And the highlight of the evening was Eric Halfvarson’s turn as Tatiana’s older husband, Gremin, singing movingly about love in old age in a voice that itself showed marks of age as well as much of its glory.
In his WNO debut, the conductor Robert Trevino showed sensitivity and tremendous vigor, making the orchestra sound loud and vibrant, despite a few bloopers. The chorus, however, was often almost drowned out by the vital noises coming from the pit. Overall, though, this “Onegin” gives Washington audiences a chance to see a classic work in a classic production — one by a contemporary stage director whose work audiences actually like.
Eugene Onegin Through March 29 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. kennedy-center.org.