Chautauqua Opera stages Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’

Eugene Onegin, played by Matthew Worth, and Tatiana, played by Elizabeth Baldwin, discuss literature when they first meet in the opera Eugene Onegin. Onegin criticizes her choice of reading romantic literature. (Joshua Boucher | Staff Photographer)

Eugene Onegin, played by Matthew Worth, and Tatiana, played by Elizabeth Baldwin, discuss literature when they first meet in the opera Eugene Onegin. Onegin criticizes her choice of reading romantic literature. (Joshua Boucher | Staff Photographer)

Falling into a one-way romantic affair can be devastating.

For this reason, Chautauqua Opera Company’s General and Artistic Director Jay Lesenger believes there will not be a teenage girl or boy in the audience who can’t relate to this aspect of Eugene Onegin.

“Everyone has had an unrequited love,” Lesenger said. “Maybe they wrote that letter, email or text they wished they hadn’t sent.”

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will take the audience on a romantic and emotional roller coaster at 7:30 p.m. tonight, and again Monday, in Norton Hall.

The plot is based on Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel, in which he tells the story of two sets of lovers. Eugene Onegin and Tatyana Larina serve as the main characters; Vladimir Lensky and Tatyana’s sister Olga Larina, serve as supporting characters.

Tatyana, a shy, Russian country girl, meets Eugene, a hardened socialite, and falls madly in love with him. She writes a letter and confesses her love to Eugene, but he rejects her. Tatyana is devastated.

Years later, Eugene runs into Tatyana, who is now a confident and beautiful princess. He falls madly in love with her, but she is married to a prince. Although she still loves him, she rejects him because of her new life.

“I think Onegin is a very special piece, because it’s not a piece of a lot of action,” Lesenger said. “Macbeth [Chautauqua Opera’s first 2015 production] is such an extroverted piece, so this was a great contrast for the season.”

Lesenger first worked on Eugene Onegin in the 1970s as a choreographer while in graduate school. In 2006, he directed the production in Norway.

“As a director, you come up with a viewpoint or vision for your piece,” he said. “In opera, you tend to do works over and over again, but what changes it is the chemistry of the cast.”

In Norway, Lesenger was not able to choose the cast because the artistic director there already established a Norwegian cast, he said. Although that ensemble was wonderful, Lesenger is excited with the cast he chose for Chautauqua’s production.

“Matt Worth is basically a Chautauquan, and I knew he would be perfect for the role of Eugene,” he said. “Elizabeth Baldwin is a former Young Artist and had a huge success in Peter Grimes here at Chautauqua, and again I thought she would be perfect for Tatyana.” Lesenger said the group of Young Artists is quite strong this year. Apprentice artists John Riesen and Clara Nieman are filling the supporting roles of Vladimir and Olga.

Worth, a baritone, has returned as a guest artist and participated in the School of Music’s Voice Program at Chautauqua Institution in 2004, 2005 and 2009 — the year he played Eugene.

“The first time, I did it in Russian, this time it is in English,” Worth said. “The process of preparing for a role is multifaceted. It involves learning the music, words, expression and emotion.”

Worth said he had to make a few changes to the style of the language for his and the audience’s understanding, but the preparation process was relatively easy and painless.

“When I came back to this role, the music must have been somewhere in the back of my head for six years. I did not have to relearn any of that — it just felt really good,” he said. “The implementation of the English translation took a while just because I like to understand the ins and outs of the words, and this is bit of an antiquated translation.”

The first time Worth performed as Eugene, the director granted him free rein when learning how to act, he said, but Lesenger’s experience enlightened Worth’s outlook on the character and the opera.

“[Eugene Onegin] is not about somebody dying, or somebody wanting something, somebody telling them they can’t have it and then they go away,” he said. “I think that is so realistic because the way that we as humans interact, sometimes the timing doesn’t work out.”

Through Acts I and II, Eugene has gone through a lot of changes emotionally and realized a lot more about how lonely life can be, Worth said. At the beginning, he believed he was destined to be alone.

“After killing one of his friends and going out to the world to travel by himself, he realized how tedious life could be without a companion and friendship,” Worth said. “So, by the time he gets to Act III, he is a changed man.”

Worth has been a leading man at Santa Fe Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Castleton Festival, Tanglewood Festival, Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Despite his history at Chautauqua, this will be his debut with Chautauqua Opera Company.

Guest artist Baldwin will lend soprano skills to the role of Tatyana.

“I feel like I’m a bit like her, because I am a total romantic, but I am not as bold as she is. She is very bold,” Baldwin said. “The typical chick flicks that you go to see, that is her.”

This is Baldwin’s third time performing with Chautauqua Opera. She participated in the Young Artists Program as a Studio Artist in 2006, and in 2013 she played the role of Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

While preparing for her roles, research is Baldwin’s first step. She then engages the music.

“This helps me to dive into how I am as a character and how I look at things musically,” she said. “If things are really peppy in the music, but yet my character is very reserved, quiet and shy, I have to find that balance.”

She works closely with her voice teacher and vocal coaches to master the language, notes and rhythms.

“In the beginning, [Tatyana] is shy, reserved and protected. Later, she has to take on a heightened sense of what she was before, she has to be more like a princess,” Baldwin said. “Connecting with the character is important, going through the devastation and the turmoil. She takes you on a journey.”

Baldwin is happy to be back with Chautauqua Opera.

“This is my family, and no matter who is or isn’t here, it is always the same,” Baldwin said.

A large piece of the Chautauqua Opera family is leaving as Lesenger draws closer to the end of his final season.

“As I am directing this, I know this is my last, and through all of this I have the sense of knowing this will be the last time I will be directing in this particular way,” Lesenger said. “It is bittersweet, and I know this is a good decision for myself, but I know that I am going to certainly miss what I do here and the community tremendously.”