Mercer Arts Arena, Seattle Center, 206-389-7676, $35-$109 runs through Nov. 2
Tchaikovsky referred to his 1878 Eugene Onegin not as an opera, but as lyrical scenes; his aim was not Verdian blood-and-thunder but a more acute observation of Russian society. He distilled Pushkins novel-in-verse to three milieux in three actslife among the bucolic peasantry, the landed bourgeois, and the nobilityand set against these the simple but subtle plot: Aristocrat Eugene rejects the advances of Tatyana, and gets rejected in turn when he crosses her path again years later.
Director Jonathan Miller, whose theater savvy goes back to his days with Englands proto-Python comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, elegantly acknowledges Onegins artificeand that of opera itself. As if recalling Pushkins stringent sonnet form, the same set serves for all three acts: a classical colonnade of evenly-spaced columns backed by mirrored walls. And no curtain ever comes downwe see the set changes, with costumed stagehands moving props, and the major-domo onstage signals to the conductor in the pit when the Act III ball scene is ready to begin.
We should also probably thank Miller for the thoughtful characterizations. No stereotypes allowed: Vladimir Chernov, whose powerful baritone has a tenorial ring, makes Eugene less a cad than a realist, more a Mr. Darcyimperious but self-awarethan a villain. (In Isabella Bywaters excellent 1820-ish costumes, hes sleek as a greyhound, all chest and tapered legs.) When he lets Tatyana down, you ache for her, but you see his pointhe aint the marryin kind, and hes only being honest. Later, when Eugene melts down before our eyes in his final encounter with Tatyana, Chernov pulls off a wonderfully convincing portrayal of a man making a thoroughly unconvincing declaration of passion. For the first time the realist Eugene plays a rolebadly. Chernov is fascinating as a man groping for emotions while shocked at the realization that he has none.
Soprano Nuccia Focile is a nuanced Tatyana: a romantic dreamer, but pensive beyond her years, Focile makes it clear that it takes some internal struggle for Tatyana to succumb to admitting her love for Eugene. Focile shows us not just the humiliation of a woman rejected, but the self-reproach of one who let her guard down (and, later, a mature determination not to let it happen again).
Fociles Letter Scene, in which she stays up all night writing to Eugene, is affecting, but the lyric high points of this production are the arias of Eugenes friend Lensky and Tatyanas eventual husband Prince Gremin. Outraged by Eugenes flirting with his fianc饠Olga, Lensky challenges him to a duel, preceded by a grand where did it all go wrong? lament, delivered by Kurt Streit with ravishing tone and phrasing. Alexander Anisimov was last seen at Seattle Opera in the title role of Boris Godunov; here he takes the tiny but telling part of Gremin and nearly steals the show. A head taller than anyone else, looking and sounding every inch the battle-scarred Russian general, he sings of his love for Tatyana with an incomparably moving combination of richly gravelly tone and ardent feeling. (The question of whether Tatyana loves him as devotedly is poignantly never raised.)
The Seattle Symphony plays well, but with some sourness of pitch in the winds, which I mention only because it rarely happens. The chorus, whatever their recent labor difficulties with Seattle Opera management, sounds bold and untraumatized, and looks and moves well, providing some thrilling set pieces. Conductor Andreas Mitiseks solid guidance keeps everything moving gently forward but allows everyone the space they need. The result is just the sort of theatrical unity that an opera production should haveall elements working toward the same expressive goal.