There is a moment in Eugene Onegin when you forget you're at an opera at all. At the beginning of the second act, Lensky wanders over to a lonely bench awaiting a duel with his best friend, the headlights from his '80s Volvo illuminating the falling snow against a black backdrop. It looks and feels more like something out of Tokyo Drifter than a nearly 140-year-old opera. Portland Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's seven lyrical scenes of romance, heartbreak, betrayal and loneliness set against the backdrop of the decaying Soviet Union in the 1980s is an indecently cinematic experience.
Eugene Onegin opens with two sisters, Olga and Tatiana, wandering around a playground where Soviet propaganda posters hang on the fence in the background. Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) is a dreamer, her sister more a realist. Olga (Abigail Dock) has fallen for a poet named Lensky (Aaron Short), who arrives shortly with his neighbor Eugene Onegin (Alexander Elliott, who starred in Sweeney Todd last month).
There's a sense of déjà vu when Onegin makes his first appearance. It's not from the opera or any familiarity with the story or actors. He's wearing the same tan top coat, T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes as John Cusack from Say Anything. The costumes, set and prop design have all fully embraced the '80s setting. High-waisted jeans, overalls and suspenders are back. Tatiana's love letter to Onegin—using the same words from Pushkin's original novel—is now recorded on a cassette tape and Onegin listens with a Walkman. Comic relief Monsieur Triquet is now the tracksuit-wearing lounge singer he was always meant to be. Only the Soviet soldier's uniform looks out of place, a reminder of an era nearing its end.
The somber bellow of a French horn is a constant throughout the opera. Even as passions run high, Tatiana's love goes unrequited, and Onegin and Lensky duel, the French horn returns, as if to remind everyone that none of this is going to end well.
Though Onegin gets the top billing, Forni's Tatiana steals the show. The one exception is when Monsieur Triquet serenades her while spinning on a merry-go-round. You can hear the confidence and power change in Tatiana's voice as she morphs from a lovesick teenager obsessed with Onegin to a princess confronted by that pretentious twat five years later in post-Soviet Russia.
Eugene Onegin is a "he loves me, he loves me not" story stretched over seven scenes (and nearly three hours) that are filled with those heightened operatic emotions where friendships can only end in a duel on a snowy night. It is a credit to the actors, the company and Tchaikovsky's original libretto and composition that the show never feels simple or ridiculous. Instead, you get swept away in a tale of Soviet love unrequited, pettiness and regret.
see it: Eugene Onegin is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday, July 14-15; Saturday, July 23; and Tuesday, July 26. 2 pm Sunday, July 10 and 17. $35-$200.