Review: A Eugene Onegin Fueled by Secret Gay Love

Heartbeat Opera emphasizes the homoerotic subtext in Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera.

Roy Hage plays Lensky, and Edwin Joseph plays the title role in the Heartbeat Opera production of Eugene Onegin, directed by Dustin Wills, at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
(© Russ Rowland)

Few individuals working outside Putin’s culture ministry would deny that Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, Russia’s greatest composer, was gay. His was a profound homosexuality that not even a century of Soviet censorship could suppress. And when I hear the melodic majesty of the Violin Concerto or witness the high drama Act IV of Swan Lake, it seems so obvious — only a Russian homo

It’s not explicit. Music rarely is. You must read between the lines, which is exactly what director Dustin Wills and music director Jacob Ashworth have done in their new adaptation of Eugene Onegin, which is now being presented by Heartbeat Opera (for which Ashworth serves as artistic director) at Baruch Performing Arts Center.

The production is inspired by the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova in 1877, the year in which he also wrote Onegin. It is tantalizing to think that Tchaikovsky disguised some of his own anguish in the score, but I suspect this is more of a case of life imitating art — or at least a composer attempting to learn from it. And who better to instruct than Russia’s own Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, whose verse novel serves as the source material?

Edwin Joseph plays Onegin in the Heartbeat Opera production of Eugene Onegin, directed by Dustin Wills, at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
(© Russ Rowland)

Pushkin’s basic story remains: Tatyana (Emily Margevich) is a young woman living with her widowed mother Larina (a satisfyingly blousy Shannon Delijani), tomboy sister Olga (Sishel Claverie), and stalwart nurse Filipyevna (Tynan Davis). A daughter of the idle gentry, Tatyana spends her days reading romantic novels and dreaming of knights in shining armor. And when Olga’s love, Lensky (Roy Hage) brings around his best bro, Onegin (Edwin Joseph), she thinks she’s found one. She stays up all night writing a letter in which she confesses her love, only for Onegin to rebuke her. Years later, when she has married the fabulously wealthy and influential Prince Gremin (Lloyd Reshard Jr.), Onegin suddenly realizes he made a big mistake.

Ashworth and Wills have shaved the opera down to a brisk 100 minutes (it takes the Met nearly four hours to perform its Onegin). It is sung in Russian with English supertitles. Gone is the peasants’ chorus (good riddance), and Monsieur Triquet’s couplets have been reassigned to Olga (Claverie, consistently hilarious throughout, makes a meal of this amuse-bouche). We miss nothing, while this occasionally shaggy opera has become an edge-of-your seat drama.

The adaptors’ major narrative liberty is to read a sexual relationship between Onegin and Lensky, the clandestine “kid stuff” that has been transpiring between boys since time immemorial, but only burst out of the closet with the 1948 publication of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar.

Armed with a gorgeously resonant baritone and an irresistible grin, Joseph memorably plays his part. His Onegin is the kind of naughty bisexual who understands the rules of decorum all too well and gets his kicks flouting them in public. The trigger for his fateful duel with Lensky is not so much his insistence on dancing with Olga all night as it is almost getting caught administering a handy near the fly system.

Poor Lenksy is the closest thing this opera has to a tragic victim, and Hage embodies that throughout, first in an overwrought love song to Olga (the young man protests too much), and later in a haunting rendition of “Kuda, kuda, kuda vï udalilis.” His wide, watery eyes agonize over the youth he has lost and the love that can never be as he touches heaven with his delicate high notes. This is why we attend the opera.

Emily Margevich plays Tatyana in the Heartbeat Opera production of Eugene Onegin, directed by Dustin Wills, at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
(© Russ Rowland)

Although the focus is on the boys, Margevich holds her own as Tatyana, a good girl caught in the throes of adolescent infatuation. Her letter scene is as passionate as any Taylor Swift epic, and her transformation into a great lady is completely believable. She even makes us feel the ghostly pangs of her infatuation when she reunites with Onegin, something that is completely irrational considering where she has landed: Far from the expiring patriarch that is typically portrayed, Reshard’s Prince Gremin feels positively vigorous. He is almost certainly more fun in bed than Onegin.

Wills, who also designed the set, stages it all with the construction site aesthetic that worked so well in Wolf Play. The set seems to materialize before our eyes, leading to some extraordinary moments as a skeletal wooden frame rolls out to become Tatyana’s room, falls forward to become a massive banquet table (creating the illusion of a crowded party with a minimum number of actors), and then raises again to become a small proscenium stage for the final act. Wills is an undisputed master of DIY spectacle, and if he can do all this on a shoestring, I can only imagine what he could accomplish with a big budget.

No moment is wasted, which is especially apparent in the transitions. As Onegin contemplates the horror of having just murdered his best friend, the music suddenly leaps into the jaunty Polonaise and hands burst through an upstage wall, grasping Onegin’s body both sensuously and violently, wordlessly telling the story of decades of hedonism.

Edwin Joseph plays Onegin in the Heartbeat Opera production of Eugene Onegin, directed by Dustin Wills, at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
(© Russ Rowland)

Ashworth, who conducts the small orchestra and plays first violin, is just as resourceful. Dan Schlosberg’s efficient arrangements don’t aim for that symphonic Tchaikovsky sound (how could you with just 9 musicians?) but make us hear the score in a whole new way, with some particularly eerie passages of distortion employing an electric guitar and electric violin.

Purists might scoff, but there are plenty of traditional stagings of Onegin in the world. The Heartbeat production proves that there’s still plenty left to discover within this 146-year-old opera.

As for Tchaikovsky, I can only conclude that he wanted to learn from Onegin’s mistake by saying yes to the naïvely infatuated young woman. No superfluous playboy, the great romantic was going to beat back his animal urges in favor of domesticity with a good woman. Because love wins. It was a decision both parties would live to regret.

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Eugene Onegin

Closed: April 13, 2024