A tangerine lightbox frames the action in Robert Carsen’s production of Eugene Onegin, setting the fleshiest of subjects within a cool monochrome frame. As the curtain rises, we see Tchaikovsky (and Pushkin’s) idea of the dailiness of the proletariat, on the cusp of winter at harvest-time. Though the opera’s opening image of the people finds them celebrating the regularity of seasons, Tatyana (sung by Lyric favorite Ana María Martínez) enters as a bookworm and a dreamer. The peasants’ song inspires her, but only to imagine distant worlds.

The opera’s three acts are sharply divided by gender: the first half focuses on Tatyana and revolves around the young girl’s decision to send the mysterious and dashing Eugene Onegin a letter. The second half centers on the friendship between Onegin and his friend Lensky before returning to the central romantic pair. This means that Tatyana’s story and singing must carry the action for the first hour and a half, and Martinez was only a qualified success on this effort. The Letter Scene requires enormous inventiveness of expression and tone, not to mention a confident large-scale formal plan to avoid flattening out into an unending monologue. Yet Martinez plays Tatyana as a young woman whose passions are still tea lights; it’s as if she’s playing at grand emotions she has yet to experience. It makes sense dramatically, but it’s musically thin. Far more convincing was Martinez’s return in the last act as the older, married, sober-minded Tatyana. When she admonishes Onegin for not being interested in her when she was free, her voice carries the force of years.

This finale was the dramatic and musical high of the night, when both Martinez and Mariusz Kwiecień, as Onegin, let themselves cut loose, laying waste to the bare stage. Admire Pushkin’s trust that unreturned love is more than enough for the most tragic of endings – death would just be superfluous. Martinez’s and Kwiecień’s voices roped around one another, she opening up and he focusing his open, resonant baritone to capture the bitterness of his loss. It’s a shattering ending, even when there was hardly anything but their bodies and their voices onstage.

Given how good this finale was, it’s saying something that Charles Castronovo still managed to provide the standout performance of the night as the unlucky Lensky. His voice is heroic, throaty, and overtone-rich. Alisa Kolosova nicely captured the contrast to Tatyana with her bright rendition of Olga, and Jill Grove was grounded and reassuring as Tatyana’s nanny, Filippyevna.

The Lyric orchestra, unfortunately, didn’t make much of a splash under Alejo Pérez in either the upbeat dance numbers, which could have been crisper, or the lilting, lyrical passages, which could have used more focus and commitment. Alongside the weirdly centripetal directing, which kept clumping people (even at parties!) at the center of the stage, it was fortunate to have singers who went to the edge, and beyond.