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Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana in the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Eugene Onegin.Michael Cooper

Solidifying its place as one of the world’s major opera houses, the Canadian Opera Company has brought to its stage Robert Carsen’s 21-year-old production of Eugene Onegin. Immediately recognizable thanks to the arresting minimalism of Michael Levine’s sets and Jean Kalman’s lighting, the production ages remarkably well. That’s unsurprising, since this Eugene Onegin balances the pragmatic – clear storytelling and a magnification of character relationships – with the evocative – imposing environments and a clean suspension of disbelief. Carsen seems to find a marriage between Pushkin’s austere story, and Tchaikovsky’s human, organic score.

Originally presented at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, the production is almost more well-known for its 2007 revival, which had the dual advantages of being broadcast in the Met’s Live in HD series, and starring operatic giants Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) and Renée Fleming (Tatyana). Carsen’s Onegin is strongly associated with the Met, and so it’s a treat – maybe even an honour – that it’s now come to Toronto.

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Carsen’s Onegin is strongly associated with the Metropolitan Opera, and so it’s a treat – maybe even an honour – that it’s now come to Toronto.Michael Cooper

The COC packs its Eugene Onegin cast with Canadians. Tenor Joseph Kaiser, overdue in Toronto since his performances of Pylades in Iphigénie en Tauride (2011), is a merciful breath of fresh air as the poet Lensky; his is one of the few characters in Onegin who seem like real humans, and his Act 2 aria is a memorable moment. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury sings a ringing Tatyana, with a fresh sound to suggest her charming innocence in Act 1 and mature stoicism in Act 3. We certainly root for her as she holds fast against Onegin’s infuriating display of too-little-too-late, and there’s triumph in her final phrase.

Perhaps the most noteworthy performance is Gordon Bintner’s as Onegin; it’s a big deal for the 30-year-old bass-baritone to take on a leading role with this type of gravitas, and it’s the first time he’s done so with the COC. Kind and generous offstage, Bintner successfully embodies one of the most unappealing characters in all of opera. He is aloof, elitist and condescending as Onegin, precisely what Pushkin and Tchaikovsky wrote. At the same time, he brings a cold swagger and a strikingly beautiful voice to the character, giving Tatyana a reason to develop a hopeless crush on him.

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As Onegin, Gordon Bintner successfully embodies one of the most unappealing characters in all of opera.Michael Cooper

There are issues with the piece, which often assumes its listener is familiar with the source material by Pushkin. In the opera, we don’t get enough information about the relationship between Lensky and Tatyana’s sister, Olga (impressively sung by Varduhi Abrahamyan); all we hear is that they were childhood sweethearts all grown up, a fact that actually becomes a bit sad when we see how poorly Olga treats her doting Lensky.

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El-Khoury, a soprano, sings a ringing Tatyana.Michael Cooper

More importantly, Tchaikovsky doesn’t spend nearly enough time establishing the friendship between Lensky and Onegin. Only in Act 2, when their argument escalates to a fatal duel, do we understand that the two men mean a lot to each other. The opera seems to skimp on the nature of this relationship, and Carsen’s detached production does little to fill in the gap.

That’s the trade-off, apparently, in this Onegin: We get austere beauty, but we are held at arm’s length. El-Khoury’s Tatyana and Kaiser’s Lensky reach the farthest into the world of imperfect humanism, but even their stories are enslaved by Levine’s stage design. Tatyana’s hormonal Letter Scene felt constrained despite an expansive set, and Lensky’s aria is robbed of eye contact by a cold scrim. Carsen’s production places the singers consistently far upstage, a costly choice for the acoustic of the Four Seasons Centre, causing balance issues with the orchestra and dampening the dynamic range of Tchaikovsky’s opera.

Still, Carsen’s Onegin is a piece of contemporary operatic history, as are the performances by this Toronto cast.

Eugene Onegin runs until November 3 at the Four Seasons Centre.

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