From the first curtain, it looked as if Tchaikovky’s lush opera drama “Eugene Onegin,” now playing at San Francisco Opera, was going to be a complete sleeper. Voices were muted, orchestral balances were shaky, and Robert Carsen’s much-acclaimed production lacked even a whiff of Russian imperial elegance.  

Every Russian knows the “Onegin” story, based on a verse novel by Pushkin: two young girls live with their mother on a country estate. Tatyana falls for Onegin, a rich, cynical aristocrat who rejects her and later falls for her when she is a well-married princess. Simple tale, gorgeous, haunting music requiring strong voices and dramatic talent.  

In the first act of Robert Carsen’s bare-boned production, it was as if the singers were marking — something like a dress rehearsal — instead of singing out the passion that must spark the opera beginning to end.

Russian soprano Evgenia Muraveva performs in the role of Tatyana in a scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at SF Opera. (Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The underlying problem was in the pit: Greek conductor Vassilis Christopoulos produced  radically shifting tempos and volumes which created an almost complete disconnect with the stage, at least initially.  

Things settled down in Act II, with some powerful singing by Russian soprano Evgenia Muraveva as Tatyana and Russian mezzo Aigul Akhmetshina in the role of her sister Olga. One sister pensive and introspective, and the other playful and spirited — a contrast well marshaled by the two in company debuts.  The waltz and polonaise were rapturously played by the orchestra.   

Canadian baritone Gordon Bintner as Onegin was a disappointment vocally and dramatically, but his sidekick and Olga’s lover Lensky, sung with focus, force and bright colors by American tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson, made the case powerfully for his love and jealousy. Lensky’s aria, sung just before he is dispatched in a duel with Onegin, was the evening’s high point. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto mustered a lot of theatrical ardor for Prince Gremin’s poignant aria about old age and love (to honor Furlanetto’s many San Francisco appearances, he was given the SFO medal), and mezzo Ronnita Miller was a standout as the girls’ nurse. 

The action takes place in silhouette during the Act II duel scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at SF Opera. (Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Robert Carsen’s production, with Michael Levine’s stage designs (directed here by Peter McClintock) is spare to a fault.  The opera takes place in the kitchens, bedrooms, gardens, and ballrooms of rich Russian estates, but there is almost nothing of 19th century Russia here, other than the chorus in peasant gear, singing splendidly. Even the well-costumed ball in Gremin’s Palace offers little to show off that opulent time. Christine Binder’s innovative lighting was the saving grace. An ensemble of dancers offered striking moments, but the scene where Onegin flirts with Olga to set off Lensky’s jealousy is not well drawn or staged, and important psychological connections between singers were lost.

“Eugene Onegin” has several more performances through October 14 at the San Francisco War Opera House.

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