Prince Gremin is not the hero of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. He only appears in one scene. He only sings one aria. As the wealthy old man Tatyana settles for, Prince Gremin is wallpaper in the plot at best. But in Houston Grand Opera’s revival production, Prince Gremin is the unlikely star. This is not to say the rest of the opera didn’t have its great moments. A Canadian Opera Company production, originally created for the Metropolitan Opera by Robert Carsen in 1997, this Onegin celebrates the allure of rich simplicity. With arias that work as showcases for emotion rather than plot development (in some editions of the score they are referred to as tableaux), the opera begs for a sentimental complement in design. Here, burnt oranges, butter yellows, radiant azure, cerulean, amethyst and rose grace three plain walls. The way these colors match and illuminate the feeling on stage is genius.

But within these stark walls lie concentrated visuals, too. The Act II party scene, for example, packed dancing guests into a tight square of chairs in the center of the stage. With plenty of room cushioning the square from the walls, it was confined and spacious at the same time.

And the singing didn’t fall short either. United States soprano Katie van Kooten, in the role of Tatyana, bleeds feeling. In the famed letter-writing aria of Act I Scene 2, Van Kooten left nothing behind as she uncovered the depth of Tatyana’s love and desire, with the descending sixths that pass around the orchestra falling like droplets around her. Van Kooten has a refined voice whose powerful emotion often belies her attention to technical accuracy. Making your audience forget it takes work to communicate turmoil that well is the culmination of great singing. 

Baritone Scott Hendricks, as Eugene Onegin, and tenor Norman Reinhardt, as Lensky, both did fine jobs. Their duel, set in black silhouettes against a stormy blue hue, was unnerving in the best way. But the Russian consonants seemed to stymie their expression, which sounded practiced and uncomfortable, and they were difficult to hear. I thought there was a balance issue with the orchestra until Dmitry Belosselskiy entered as Prince Gremin and belted out the most incredible aria of the night.

What a shame that Belosselskiy, who also performs the small role of Angelotti in HGO’s concurrently running Tosca, does not have larger parts. His bass voice gently folds you in a warm embrace that, incredibly, then locks you in. Tremendous yet seriously tender, his five-minute aria about loving Tatyana filled the hall and – indeed, as the libretto reads – set happiness afire.

This influx of emotion would not be possible without the deft direction of German conductor Michael Hofstetter, who certainly knows how to whip up delicate compassion from an orchestra. He conducts from his shoulders, as though he needs the extra momentum to deliver that much ardor. 

Revival director Paula Suozzi, tasked with the recreation of Carsen’s timeless vision, does exceptional work maintaining the original aesthetic while infusing something new, too. But re-imagining this opera with Prince Gremin as the show-stealer was no doubt a happy accident. To see Tchaikovsky’s Onegin through the eyes of a man past his prime, bewildered by a love he thought would never be and dizzy with childlike wonderment and delight. It’s a pretty fantastic discovery in a great, old opera.