SAN DIEGO — "Men," observed the wondrous Dorothy Parker, "seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses."
Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," with its brooding passions and abiding melancholia, obviously owes more to Pushkin than to Parker. Nevertheless, the fascinating, inventive, thoughtful production staged Saturday night by the San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre does make a few poignant points about the amorous disadvantages of optical aids.
When first we see the heroine Tatiana in John Copley's 1983 production--an import from Festival Ottawa--she isn't just the sensitive, intrinsically romantic, potentially lovesick dreamer defined by tradition. As portrayed by Kathryn Bouleyn (the same Kathryn Bouleyn who had been hopelessly straitjacketed by the Long Beach Opera's "Onegin" last season), this girl emerges as a fey, adorable, bespectacled bookworm.
She is chronically shy, gawky, gentle, an ugly duckling with obvious potential. Under the circumstances, it cannot be too surprising that she is so susceptible to the allures of the exceptionally tall, urbane, elegant Onegin delineated by Michael Devlin.
Compared to others, Bouleyn's Tatiana is doubly vulnerable, triply pathetic, almost--but, thank goodness, not quite--comic. Given the probing psychology of Copley's direction, the gleaming purity of Bouleyn's singing and the pervasive intensity of her acting, this unconventional, essentially unglamorous character study makes uncommon sense.
When the soprano reappears in the last act as the gracious and glittery wife of Prince Gremin, her transformation--and Onegin's desperate change of both heart and perception--suggests more than natural evolution. It contains a hint of Svengalian wizardry. Her regal entrance, in any case, is a marvelous coup de theatre , brilliantly executed.
The credibility of the coup is marred only by a couple of nagging, irreverent and irrelevant questions. One cannot but wonder if the good old Prince bought his bride some 1827 contact lenses? Or if the dazzle of the St. Petersburg palace was enough to unimpair the once-provincial lady's eyesight.
The questions are, of course, trivial. But Copley's production is so carefully motivated, so logical, so sensitive to mood and emotional nuance that even the most minute detail takes on major significance.
Robin Don's unobtrusively modern scenery frames Copley's action scheme eloquently and reinforces the wonted atmosphere with poetic simplicity. The central leitmotif is a translucent backdrop of barren birch trees, behind which the participants appear and disappear as ominous silhouettes. In defining locales, the designer has created cool, semi-stylized set pieces that respect the distinctions between rustic innocence, elemental cruelty and aristocratic pretension.
Devlin as the arrogantly Byronic, heroically repentant Onegin stalks these scenes with taut bravado, and sings with clarity and fervor. More bass than baritone, he cannot always take full advantage of the high climaxes. Nevertheless, he remains a magnetic presence, vocally and dramatically, and he provides a splendid counterforce for the first pathetic, then tragic Tatiana.
In such company, Richard Greager, the debutant Lenski from Australia, looks like a decent, conventional tenor. He sounds imposing when he can ring the rafters, dry and tight on the few occasions when he attempts the introspective pianissimos upon which the role is predicated.
Ironically, it is Bernard Fitch, the character tenor cast in the cameo role of Monsieur Triquet, who offers a model demonstration of soft singing .
Don Garrard brings a gravelly basso and proletarian demeanor to the great, foolproof aria of Prince Gremin. Otherwise, the supporting ensemble is strong. Kathleen Hegierski offers a vivacious Olga hardly discomfited by the awkward descending phrases. Lisa Turetsky introduces a hearty Mme. Larina, Fredda Rakusin an appreciative Filipyevna, and Richard Paul Fink a notably sonorous Zaretsky.
Stuart Challender, a newcomer from the Australian Opera, conducts with compelling impetuosity whenever agitation beckons, and with telling emotional expansion in Tatiana's Letter Scene. He--and a rather ragged orchestra--approach other reflective passages, however, with less than optimum tenderness.
John Hart provides creditable and close-to-credible choreography for the two contrasting ball scenes. The chorus sings lustily, dances gingerly. The leading balletic ringers look self-conscious and, as always, seem to have traipsed in from some other show.
In spite of the passing blemishes, this remains an "Onegin" of authentic power. It is sung, clearly and expressively, in an English translation by David Lloyd-Jones that makes those infernal, now-ubiquitous supertitles unnecessary. Even more important, it is directed with sympathetic insight, conducted with abiding urgency and ennobled by protagonists who don't even flirt with cliches.
This may be the San Diego Opera's finest hour.