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Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky’s selfish hero who goes on to regret rejection of a young woman’s love and his role in the death of his friend is given an electric interpretation.

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Emily Margevitch as Tatyana and Edwin Joseph as Eugene in a scene from Heartbeat Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Tony Marinelli, Critic

One of the things we’ve come to expect from Heartbeat Opera is how they are able to breathe new life into the opera canon, and with usually only 9 musicians in the “pit.” Music director Dan Schlosberg’s vibrant new arrangement for Tchaikovsky’s beloved Eugene Onegin features electric violin, electric bass, electric guitar, and saxophone to create moods akin to the most demonstrative in the best film scoring. And where a ninth musician (additional violin) is necessary, artistic director, Co-adaptor and conductor Jacob Ashworth rises to the occasion. At one point in the proceedings, maestro Ashworth is also relied on to deliver the infamous “letter” from Tatyana to Onegin.

Director and co-adapter Dustin Wills mines the original score, and Pushkin, and even somewhat recently unearthed Tchaikovsky letters (still censored until as recently as 2009) to give new heart to the already complex character of Eugene Onegin. Here, Onegin is battling repressed homosexuality the same way Tchaikovsky did his entire life. And perhaps Lensky returns those feelings “in the love that dare not speak its name.” It certainly explains a lot of things.

Emily Margevich as Tatyana, Lloyd Reshard Jr. as Prince Gremin, Edwin Joseph as Eugene Onegin, Tynan Davis as Filpyevna and Roy Hage as Lensky in a scene from Heartbeat Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

There have been classic interpretations of Onegin over the years. Vladimir Chernov skillfully played the utter disdain of the idle gentry of Madame Larina’s household as if he walked into a room where the kitchen trash hadn’t been thrown out in weeks. The perfect Dmitri Hvorostovsky captured the sexual swagger and confidence that made the entire audience want to be with him the way Tatyana did. The superb Mariusz Kwiecień found a blend of metrosexuality and overt sexuality to detail how his Onegin was too refined to be with anyone in present company. All have stood their time as valid ways to personify the quintessential anti-hero.

Enter young baritone Edwin Joseph. He has that dark curly hair and handsome face, yes, and the crucial understanding of the necessary swagger and selfishness that carries this character through the opera, yes. Mr. Joseph brings to mind the earthy and always sexy television star Shemar Moore, someone who has the confidence without even trying; it’s just there, and in spades. Joseph is helped with Mr. Wills’ ingenious staging. Tatyana’s letter scene is performed with Onegin perched on the top stairs of a stage ladder in full view just stage left of her bedroom space. The implication that he is well aware he is desired by Tatyana is there long before he reads the letter. He doesn’t need to read her outpouring of her soul to know he has that effect on her. In the birthday party scene, it’s not the flaunting of Onegin’s flirtations with Olga that sets the tone for Lensky’s challenge to a duel, it is a brazen handjob administered by Onegin to an already emasculated Lensky off in a corner where Lensky hopes no one sees that is the trigger for everything that follows. And throughout, particularly in his closing aria in Gremin’s palace, Joseph with his rich resonant baritone has this score in the palm of his hand.

Edwin Joseph as Eugene, Shannon Delijani as Larina, Lloyd Reshard Jr. as Prince Gremin and Emily Margevich as Tatyana in a scene from Heartbeat Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Tynan Davis as the nurse Filipyevna and Shannon Delijani as Madame Larina in the opening moments carry the beautiful quartet of Russian female voices. Sishel Claverie as Olga and Emily Margevich as Tatyana blend so well with the other two mezzo-soprano voices but their opportunities to shine lie elsewhere in the score. One fine move in adapting this Onegin comes in the turning over of Monsieur Triquet’s song to Olga, who entertains the birthday party attendees dressed as a clown. In most productions of Onegin, you wish Monsieur Triquet would just shut up so we can get on with the opera, but not so here. It is a welcome addition to how playfully Miss Claverie approaches the role, despite the fact she no longer has an intended when this scene is over. A guest at that party, later Prince Gremin, Lloyd Reshard Jr. has a sumptuous bass-baritone in the showstopper aria where Gremin philosophizes on how Tatyana has injected his life with meaning and love like he has never experienced before. Director Wills strikes with some tongue-in-cheek humor as Gremin is actually carted away (on a handcart) by a stagehand once the aria is over.

Margevich is a striking Tatyana. From the opening moments we see a yearning for anything outside of the provincial boredom she lives out every day. Even the swing she sits on appears to go nowhere. Tatyana reads to take her away from every dull thing she sees at home. The appearance of Onegin is enough to make her jettison everything she has known until now. The “Letter scene” is a triumph in Margevich’s deft hands. She provides a beautifully nuanced rendition, taking every new beat as an epiphany in the maturity of a young girl. With the scene that follows, Onegin’s dismissal helps paint the regret and embarrassment all over the physical life of Margevich’s portrayal. Later in her closing moments as the now Princess Gremin, Wills’ staging provides her with a stage within the stage: a diva enveloped by the proscenium. She is not “little Tanya” anymore, but a poised woman who has made impactful decisions for herself.

Roy Hage as Lensky in a scene from Heartbeat Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Roy Hage’s Lensky is absolutely haunting. Early on in his beautiful love song to Olga, there are already hints that she is not worthy of the true passion he holds in his heart for her. No one would be. The birthday party scene is less about Tatyana’s strength in the midst of the man who has spurned her, but more about Lensky and how he endures and responds to slap after slap to his fragile masculinity at the hands of Onegin, a man he once loved and, unfortunately, still does. Hage’s “Kuda, kuda, kuda vi udalilis” is achingly beautiful in a way that we have never heard before. It is a realization that all will be over soon, and he will never come to experience love as he so deserves. It is a rich sound, luxurious even in the depths of pain.

To say that Dustin Wills is a genius might very well be an understatement. His scenic design for this Onegin is clever and based on practicality, carefully choreographed for his actors and stagehands just as in his brilliant production of Wolf Play seen at Soho Rep and MCC Theater. Just when you think the design is minimal, playing spaces materialize before our eyes in a meticulous dance. A skeletal frame of bare wood becomes Tatyana’s room, but then falls forward to become the banquet table for the birthday party and then raises again to give Tatyana her solo moment behind a proscenium. The moving staircases add on to the space. Filipyevna watches the young ones perched on the top of the staircase during the birthday party. As mentioned, Onegin hangs over the entire Letter scene.

Shannon  Delijani as Larina, Tynan Davis as Filipyevna, Sishel Claverie as Olga and Emily Margevich as Tatyana in a scene from Heartbeat Opera’s production o Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Baruch Performing Arts Center (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Co-costume designers Haydee Zelideth and Asa Benally have fun with the period costumes. They are all indicative of the era including costumes worn by the stagehands and follow-spot operators. Reza Behjat’s lighting is expressive and justifies solo moments when there’s a lot going on.

Ashworth and Wills have miraculously found a way to trim what can be a drawn-out evening at the opera into 100 minutes. Eugene Onegin is described “designated as lyrical scenes in three acts (seven scenes)” and where nothing of intrinsic value of the original score is lost, not a moment is wasted from segue to segue. There is always the chance that a new concept for a production of a repertory warhorse will fall flat because it is not thoroughly thought out. This Onegin with its homoerotic subtext is perfectly valid. For Tchaikovsky, it would be art imitating life, certainly his own closeted life. The performers are able to sustain this concept throughout. Setting Bizet’s Carmen in the American rustbelt does not work…not on any level in the recent Metropolitan Opera production. Ashworth and Wills’ Eugene Onegin is a fresh concept that deeply satisfies.

Eugene Onegin (through April 13, 2024)

Heartbeat Opera

The Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.heartbeatopera.org/tickets

Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission

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About Tony Marinelli (54 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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