At first blush, Eugene Onegin looks like a total jerk. A rich 19th-century dandy, he callously rejects the girl who’s fallen for him, seduces her sister, kills her brother-in-law and then crawls back and asks to marry her. But in Tacoma Opera’s version of the Pushkin-novel-turned-Tchaikovsky-opera, Onegin gets a little deeper. What’s more, he’ll actually be sung by a Russian in a production that draws so heavily on the Puget Sound Russian community that rehearsals are almost bilingual.
“Let’s go from that entrance,” says Misha Myznikov, as he and soprano Allison Pohl rehearse the final scene between the now-repentant Onegin and Tatyana, who’s still in love with him but refuses to break up her marriage. Pohl’s in stage-tears, while Myznikov’s pleading on his knees.
Svitlana Smaga, the rehearsal pianist, flips pages and asks, in Russian, “From ‘Oh! Gosh. Can that be right?’” Myznikov confirms the spot in Russian. Suddenly there’s a lengthy Russian discussion happening, while Pohl looks on respectfully.
Ten minutes later, director Noel Koran has moved on to the ball scene, in which Onegin revisits the village, seduces Tatyana’s sister Olga, and eventually fights a duel with Olga’s husband. Maria Lavochkina, choreographer for the Redmond-based Ivan-da-Mar’ya Russian dance troupe, is giving terse commands in Russian for the complicated circle dance. Faina Morozov, who’s singing Olga and is Ukrainian, nods, as do the six Russian speakers in the chorus.
For Pohl, having so many Russians in a production of what’s possibly the most popular Russian opera is a bonus.
“I’m really, really grateful because they’re all very understanding and eager to help,” says Pohl who, like every other member of the cast, has to memorize several hours’ worth of Russian lines as well as the music for them. This is her first time singing Tatyana, though she’s understudied before. “They’re not tortured by our accents and mistakes. They’re always smiling about it and helping.”
And they’re often talking about the work itself. Pushkin wrote the verse-novel “Eugene Onegin” in the 1820s, and it has become a classic of Russian literature, highly beloved and studied by Russians.
For a Russian, you must sing ‘Eugene Onegin” once in your life. It’s my dream come true.
Baritone Misha Myznikov
“Pride in that literature is something instilled in (the Russian cast members) since childhood,” says Pohl, who’s read the Pushkin in translation. “They can get more from it than we can ever grasp. It’s their pride and joy. So I feel a responsibility to do it justice. And (thanks to them), we get to delve into it a little deeper.”
In writing his opera, Tchaikovsky made a few subtle changes, including having Onegin punished in the end by his own remorse rather than by Tatyana’s vengeful husband. And that, says Myznikov, shows that Onegin is more than just a callous, selfish jerk.
“He had feelings,” says Myznikov, who was born in Azerbaijan, grew up in Russia and migrated to the States in 1992 after touring Northwest Folklife with a folk dance troupe. A regular with the Seattle Opera chorus, Myznikov is making his Tacoma Opera debut — and his debut singing Onegin, though he’s taken smaller parts in the opera before.
“He didn’t think marriage would make them happy. But when he returned he realized he had lost that opportunity … he made a mistake. In this production, we’re portraying him as more humane. So Tatyana’s rejection kills him, basically. He’d rather be dead (than lose her). It’s definitely a tragedy.”
Pohl agrees there’s more to Onegin than the plot synopsis would have you think.
“He’s so much more than just this snob,” she says. “He has to be much more layered and complex, otherwise how can you have that huge outpouring of passion at the end?”
Tchaikovsky’s Onegin was also deepened by the composer’s own relationships. While writing the opera, he received impassioned love letters from a young female music student. He didn’t love her — he was gay, though closeted and conflicted about it — but when she threatened suicide he married her, not wanting to be like Onegin. They soon separated, and she died much later in a mental institution. Tchaikovsky suffered acute depression for the rest of his life.
As well as a more complex Onegin and a very Russian cast, Tacoma Opera’s first production of “Eugene Onegin” has something else that sets it apart: a production in Theater on the Square. A smaller venue more suited to the intimate drama of “Onegin,” the theater hasn’t been used by the company in many years. Unlike the Rialto, it has a pit for the orchestra, which will play the sweeping romantic lines and turbulent harmonies that underscore the stage drama.
“Tchaikovsky’s writing is always complex, which brings excitement to the music,” says Myznikov. “It’s lovely to hear, though not as easy to sing.”
For baritones, who usually see opera lead roles go to the tenor, it’s a plum role. But for Myznikov, it’s something he’s been waiting all his life to sing.
“For a Russian, you must sing this once in your life,” he says. “It’s my dream come true. I came to America. Now I’m singing Onegin.”