Eugene Onegin

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin makes a belated first appearance at LA Opera as the opener for the 2011 – 2012 Season. Based on Pushkin's novel-length poem, the opera is arguably Tchaikovsky's most popular, and the brooding title character has long been a magnet for star baritones.  

 

Onegin is a dashingly Byronic character who, like his English counterpart Mr. Darcy, allows pride to guide his life choices. He is handsome, reasonably clever, and his charm proves fatal to women. (Actually it proves literally fatal to at least one man – the best friend he kills in a duel). When an artless country girl, Tatiana, pours out her soul in a love letter, he spurns her with a cool condescension which mortifies her. Years later they meet again, and, in true I-want-what-I-can't -have style, he realizes her worth and that he made a terrible mistake. But, as she is a virtuous married woman, she has no choice but to send him away.  

 

The production originated at Covent Garden and evokes a highly stylized, though not updated, vision of 19th Century Russia. Anthony McDonald's sleekly fluid sets alternate between eye-catching landscapes and uncomfortably claustrophobic interiors. Dominating the mis-en-scene is a giant scrim depicting a series of famous paintings. Flandrin’s Jeune Homme nu assis au Bord de la Mer, which dominated the opening, cleverly hinted at both Tatiana's romantic dreams and the composer's homosexuality. However, McDonald's costumes, particularly for Tatiana, seem unnecessarily drab and lumbering.  

While Onegin is the opera's protagonist, there is no arguing the fact that Tchaikovsky placed the work's musical heart in the character of Tatiana. Oksana Dyka sang the role with ferocious passion and an authoritatively dark tone. Her letter scene was an exquisite example of solid vocalism and keen dramatic insight blending to reveal the soul of the character.  

As Onegin, Dalibor Jenis reveals a powerful and sturdy instrument. Playing Onegin requires a certain cool detachment, but Jenis is unable to hint at the complexity of the man beneath the exterior. Coupled with a lack of personal charisma, the role flattens out, making one wonder what all the fuss was about. Vsevolod Grivnov proves musically poised and dramatically affecting as the doomed Lensky.  

In a welcome return to the company, James Cresswell provides a beautifully sung and sympathetic Gremin while Ekaterina Semenchuk offers a properly giddy Olga. Ronnita Nicole Miller brings extraordinary dignity and generous sound to the role of Tatiana’s nurse, Filipievna, proving that, when artfully performed, even small roles can make a lasting impact.  

Francesca Gilpin’s efficient direction brings clarity without revelation to this idiosyncratic opera in which tragedy manifests itself with a whisper rather than a howl. In the pit, James Conlon conductes a thunderingly impassioned reading of the score which never lapses into indulgence.  

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion September 17 – October 9, 2011    www.laopera.com