It is rare indeed to attend an opera sung entirely in Russian, so this novelty was an event eagerly anticipated by many in the audience last week for this season’s premiere of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeni Onegin, based on the novel in verse by the immortal Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Despite the lingering pandemic, now exacerbated by the Omicron variant, the house was packed.
Moreover, not only are the restrictive rules of seating by capsules no longer in place, there were even two intermissions — an unthinkable development not even that long ago, when cultural events first resumed after lockdowns, and intermissions were canceled altogether (to minimize mingling).
In addition, exposure time was longer than usual, since the opera comprises no fewer than three acts and seven scenes, with scenery changes between each scene. And at first, it seemed like the performance would last forever, as initially, the pacing was slow bordering on turgid. In fact, some people gave up and left.
Not that the first act was devoid of highlights: there were a few lively numbers, with choral singing, in Scene One. Scene Two belonged exclusively to the female lead Tatiana, performed by familiar Israeli soprano Ira Bertman (alternating with Alla Vasilevitsky). Her letter aria was overly long, but it had the compensation of showcasing her considerable talent.
Those who remained were rewarded for their patience, however. Things picked up considerably beginning with Act Two, with a party in honor of Tatiana’s name day, where there is singing, dancing and – as comic relief – a playful and melodic ditty by the outrageously costumed Monsieur Triquet. From then on there is plenty of action, including the fateful duel when Onegin kills Lensky.
All the artists singing the lead roles were outstanding, particularly Ukrainian baritone Andrey Bondarenko as Onegin. Russian-born Israeli bass Vladimir Braun also received prolonged applause for his performance in the role of Prince Gremin.
Unusually for an Israeli Opera production, there were hardly any guest artists from overseas. Only two male alternates – New Zealand tenor Thomas Atkins, in the role of Lensky, and Russian Bass Andrey Valentiy, in the role of Prince Gremin – were making their Israeli debuts. The director, Jean-Claude Auvray, comes from France – and even he is a veteran of many Israeli productions.
It was clear that Musical Director Dan Ettinger is settling into his role as conductor of the Opera Orchestra, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, replacing Dan Oren, who has assumed the title of Conductor Laureate. The brilliant costuming – especially in the high-society ball in Act Three – by Italian designer Chiara Donato, who has collaborated in Israel before with Auvray, added to the overall enjoyment of this occasionally ponderous but ultimately very enjoyable repeat production (revived after 18 years) of this classic 19th-century opera.