Canadian Opera Company’s Eugene Onegin grabs you by the heart

Johannes Debus
The Toronto Star

It has been 10 years since the Canadian Opera Company last presented Eugene Onegin. The quality of what we witnessed at the opening performance of its new production on Sunday afternoon proved that it was worth the long wait.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s seven “lyric scenes” adapted from a novel-in-verse by Alexander Pushkin in 1879 received their full due — with a healthy dose of Canadian content. From the staging to the singing to the orchestra, everything was solid gold.

Essentially, the story is about misplaced love: a young woman from the country, Tatyana, falls in love with Onegin, a jaded, posh city dweller. He tells her he’s not interested. Years later, they meet again. Tatyana is now married and sitting atop the social ladder. Onegin sees what he passed up and asks Tatyana to run away with him. She says she still loves him but will remain true to her husband.

Onegin is crushed. It doesn’t help that he has ruined Tatyana’s sister’s happiness and killed her fiancé along the way. No one gets a happy ending, but bad news has rarely sounded this beautiful.

COC music director Johannes Debus shaped the score with great care and balance. There was transparency to the sound all the way through, paired with voluptuousness and muscle, as the occasion demanded.

The singers were wonderful, starting with Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner in the title role. He was every inch the haughty urbanite in the beginning and fully captured the depth of emotional crisis at the end. The dots were connected smoothly, the character evolving naturally. And Bintner’s rich voice made that journey compelling.

Equally winsome was Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s Tatyana. She deftly navigated the arc from youthful passion to mature, steely resolve. She has a voice tailor-made for the composer’s melodic flights.

The rest of the cast was also strong, including Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser as Lensky, Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan as Tatyana’s sister Olga and even French character tenor Christophe Mortagne as Monsieur Triquet, who injects a lighter tone in the middle of the opera.
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