“Eugene Onegin”
Nov. 13 to Nov. 16
At the Power Center

Courtesy of Peter Smith Photography

It’s fall in Russia. Gold, burgundy and garnet leaves are scattered along the gray ground. Birch trees, the roses of Russian culture, tower over the scene in impasto stalks of black and white, powerfully sculptural yet soft, yearning to be touched.

As the music of the orchestra slowly rises, two old women enter, followed by two girls in simple, light dresses. The old women open their lips and reality melts away as their voices blend with a harmony and nostalgia that can only be Tchaikovsky.

This is the opening scene of the University Opera Theatre’s “Eugene Onegin,” playing at the Power Center tonight through Sunday. The opera, composed by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky and based on the poetic novel by Alexander Pushkin of the same title, has become a classic in Russia for its breathtaking melodies and romantic sentiment. And now a group of students from the School of Music will bring the show to Ann Arbor.

Like any great Russian play of the late 19th century, “Eugene Onegin” is a tale of unrequited passions and all-consuming loves, where being sick with affection can actually lead to death. Onegin is a well-educated misanthrope constantly brooding and dissatisfied. Tatiana is a simple girl of the countryside who falls pathetically in love with Onegin and gets rejected outright. Onegin then seduces Olga, Tatiana’s sister and the fiancé of his best friend, Lensky.

Hearts are broken, friendships are severed and dignity is lost, all while the characters continue to dance, dine and duel in the name of stolen love. Also, most importantly in Russian drama, they all indulgently and incessantly state how miserable they are.

As if duels, samovars, birches and misery weren’t Russian enough, the performers also sing the entire production in the original language, which none of them have previously studied.

“(Singing in Russian) is a daunting project and it’s actually been very inspiring, their ability to embrace it — to not only learn it, but be expressive with it,” said director Joshua Major, the Director of Opera at the School of Music.

Yet the cultural and historical aspects of “Onegin” can’t solely account for why it has become a timeless masterpiece and arguably Tchaikovsky’s best opera. “Onegin” is unique, especially in its subtlety and poetry. For anyone who hates the superfluous tendency of opera — the unnecessarily extravagant sets, over-the-top acting and pointless spectacles of crowds, horses and whatever else can fit onstage — this is the perfect antidote. The set has a clean, open feel, with stunning trees and warm lighting. Set changes are achieved through lighting and an additional piece of furniture. And best of all, the actors don’t indulge in grand gestures or melodrama. The stereotypical Brünnehilde in her Viking hat, boisterously dominating the stage, has been replaced with an ensemble of empathetic youths who actually engage with each other.

“It’s really just a bunch of conversations, and there’s only a few operas like that in the repertoire,” said Major. “The excitement is in the dialogue, the transfer of ideas, the passions.”

Still, certain traditional features of opera are certainly present. Massive choruses enter out of the blue, dances intermittently break up the arias and maidens clump together to swoon and giggle. But a deeper core, with real relationships and believable situations, remains throughout.

If these conceptual aspects don’t spark interest, no worries. The show is enjoyable without the plot. One could sit and listen to the music without ever reading a subtitle and fall sway to the power of the orchestra and voices. And since the piece was written for the Moscow Conservatory, the vocal parts were arranged for college-age singers, allowing the University cast to comfortably and elegantly work with the music.

For those in need of a break from the onset of winter or craving the catharsis of Russian despair, Tchaikovsky’s opera will be a portal into the Russian countryside where lovers drown themselves in their own miasmic swamps of emotion.

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