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No one loves the heartland more than urban elites. Twitter bios of politicians and media personalities up and down the Acela corridor advertise their identities as proud Ohio State alums and Steelers fans, to remind us that they’re not really from here, the evil halls of power where they spend all their time and earn their livings. And no one is more credulous of rural authenticity than insecure urbanites, which is how Ivy League lawyers like J.D. Vance can make entire careers as faux country hucksters.
In 19th century Europe, the equivalents of Hillbilly Elegy came in opera form. Theaters in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow catered to the Romantic era craze for folk tales set in Freiburg villages and Russian dachas, written by novelists and composers with the barest familiarity with peasant life. Alexander Pushkin, born into Muscovite nobility, wrote Eugene Onegin, the novel-poem that became Russia’s most beloved legend, and set it simply in “the country.”
Two Washington National Opera productions, running concurrently at the Kennedy Center, celebrate this tradition of pretending to like the country, one French (though set in Germany) and one Russian, both staples of the opera repertory. Both are superbly sung, effectively staged, and slightly corny, though by design.
The first, Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Onegin, is now his most celebrated opera, but in its day was derided as a trite celebration of rural innocence that failed to capture the irony and trenchant social critiques that Pushkin worked into his novel. Its music, while beautiful, is not particularly folksy, and despite being a romance, contains no duets between lovers. The second, Gounod’s Faust, is a French adaptation of the German legend and Goethe play of the same name, and even more ridiculous. A morality tale about the man who literally sold his soul to the devil, it works best when played for laughs. It helps that the devil is a major character in the opera.
Of the two, Eugene Onegin is a more stripped down staging—originally for the Met—that emphasizes music over set design. Solid colors projected onto a giant blank backdrop alter the mood from scene to scene; lighting designer Christine Binder renders a particularly memorable duel in gauzy blue shadows. The opera opens to falling leaves blanketing a bare, sloped stage, inviting fantasies of rolling down it, which the lead soprano eventually does.
But apart from these innovations and the requisite fancy ball scenes, there isn’t a ton to draw you in visually. Rather, it’s all about the singing. Two Russian singers make their U.S. debuts with this production: baritone Igor Golovatenko in the title role and soprano Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana, the true protagonist of the story. Golovatenko’s haughty baritone contrasts nicely with his frenemy Alexey Dolgov, a traditionally heroic tenor, and the reliably terrific bass Eric Halfvarson, last appearing in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle. Nechaeva’s versatile voice transforms her from lovesick teen to snooty society woman over the course of a story where little else happens.
The greatest deficiency of Eugene Onegin is Tchaikovsky’s libretto, which can be blamed on the composer’s overly sentimental reading of Pushkin, and on the fact that Pushkin didn’t have his characters do very much. Tatiana is a sweet small town girl who falls in love with the worldly cad Onegin, visiting from St. Petersburg. Onegin rebuffs her as boring, so she marries another guy. Then Onegin wants her but she rebuffs him. That’s it. Along the way Onegin kills a dude, but that’s of little consequence to the story. Somehow this became the touchstone for a whole canon of Russian literature. Tolstoy once described Anna Karenina as what would have happened if Tatiana made a different choice. One wonders what would have happened if a generation of Russian writers had been inspired by something with less brooding and more action.
Going from Onegin to Faust, the happy peasants living the good life as bonded laborers in Czarist Russia become the happy peasants fighting religious wars in feudal Germany. Faust was, in contrast to Onegin, an immediate hit when it debuted, and helped make French opera, then dominated by the opéra comique style, more modern and “serious,” which is to say more Wagnerian, with all the silly Dungeons and Dragons shit that conjures up. Gounod even toned down some of the silliness in Goethe’s play: In the original, the devil first appears after transforming from a poodle. Yet Faust is by far Gounod’s best opera, and a crowd pleaser for good reason. It’s musically rich, over the top, and unabashedly moralizing, inviting audiences to pat themselves on their back for not killing their babies or making a deal with Satan.
Director Garnett Bruce, in this Houston Grand Opera production, wisely does this Faust tongue firmly in cheek. This rests on the devil himself, and as the prince of darkness, Raymond Aceto is delightful. Far more mischievous than wicked, Aceto’s Méphistophélès chews the scenery, delights in both scaring and seducing mortals, and at one point leads a whole village in a medieval electric slide. Argentine Marcelo Puente charms in the title role as a dirty old man who trades his soul for youth in order to sleep with younger women and ghost them. Heroes are usually tenors, but Faust is more of an anti-hero, so Puente draws dark colors, a mournful complement to Aceto’s jaunty, syrupy bass.
Like Onegin, the title of Faust is somewhat deceiving. Neither title character is particularly sympathetic, nor interesting: They are there to highlight the moral superiority of the female leads. In Faust, this is the solid soprano Erin Wall, playing Marguerite, the object of Faust’s affections, or at least his horniness. Marguerite is a straight tragic heroine the likes of which you’ve seen in other operas such as Madama Butterfly: Knocked up and abandoned by her no-good man, she commits infanticide and goes to the gallows, but not before repenting and securing that ticket to heaven. Yet for all their righteousness, neither opera is kind to women. In Faust, the devil is the perfect wingman, the Mystery to Faust’s beta incel. “Women are like a fortress,” counsels Méphistophélès, and can be either “made to surrender or bought off with a ransom.” The two opt for the second option, buying off Marguerite with a box of jewels. She then sings a whole aria about jewelry, while her handmaiden falls for the oldest line in the book. “Your husband is dead,” Méphistophélès tells her, causing her to immediately fall in love with him. Only Tatiana, in Onegin, shows anything approaching independent agency and only at the end, after playing the lovesick ditz in the first act.
Bruce’s Faust is also a more lavish production. Set designer Earl Staley crowds the stage with bucolic trees, cottages with lattice windows, and thickly painted backdrops of castles and mountains. The chorus numbers are equally colorful and busy, the costumes poofy, and everything looks a little cartoonish, like what a high school production of Faust might look like with a lot more money. Heaven, we learn, has a fog machine.
Yet for all the silliness and sexism, the music reminds audiences why both operas have the staying power that they do. Conductors Robert Trevino, for Eugene Onegin, and Keri-Lynn Wilson, for Faust, bring out the beauty of both in distinct ways. Trevino is effusive and booming, and sometimes drowns out ensembles with the horns. Wilson takes a more subtle approach, with the many overtures and musical interludes flowing from one another, layering sections with vocals seamlessly. It’s a remarkably restrained take on an opera bordering on high camp, a depiction of country life so magical that the devil himself hangs out there and no one finds it surprising.
To March 29 (Eugene Onegin) and March 30 (Faust) at 2700 F St. NW. $45–$300. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org/wno