By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Los Angeles Opera
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 • Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Next performances: Sept. 25 and Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. Oct. 1 and 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Dalibor Jenis (Onegin) and Oksana Dyka (Tatiana) are the leads in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, now playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Photo by Robert Millard)
Most people in Los Angeles know the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky through his fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies, his first piano concerto, violin concerto and, to a lesser extent, his ballet music. The reason they don’t know him as an opera composer is simple: in its first quarter century, Los Angeles Opera mounted just one opera by the Russian composer, The Queen of Spades, five years ago.
Now, to begin its 26th season, the company has added another Tchaikovsky opera to its canon with an often-riveting production of Eugene Onegin, which — when combined with its sparkling presentation of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (LINK) — makes for a compelling a one-two punch during the next three weeks at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
It’s beginning to sound like a broken record (for those old enough to know what that phrase means) but, once again, this production’s strength begins with Music Director James Conlon and his Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. Conlon — who seemingly has never met a genre he doesn’t relish — was in peak form last night, leading a performance that reveled in Tchaikovsky’s luxuriant music while keeping things moving forward, and the orchestra produced sumptuous sounds throughout the evening. The LA Opera Chorus (61 strong, the same number as the orchestra), generated mighty masses of sound most of the time.
Most of the cast is unknown to Los Angeles but Conlon and General Director Plácido Domingo continue to be able to uncover strong singers (presumably at less-than-star prices) for crucial roles. Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, in his company debut, sang the title character with soaring power that improved throughout the evening. Ukranian soprano Oksana Dyka, who is making her American opera debut in the role of Tatiana, looked and sounded radiant both in the first-act letter scene and also in the climactic moments. As Lensky, Russian Vsevolod Grivnov’s tenor voice tended toward steely, occasionally nasal tones but his second-act farewell scene was moving.
Three LA Opera alumni nearly stole the show in supporting roles: Ronnita Nicole Miller as Filipieyna; James Creswell as Prince Gremin; and Keith Jameson as Monsieur Triquet. Others in the cast included Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga Larina and Margaret Thompson as Madame Larina.
As is the case with Così, this production comes from overseas, in this case courtesy of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Finnish National Opera of Helsinki. Director Stephen Pimlott created the original production in 2006, a year before he died. These performances are being directed by Francesca Gilspan, who led last year’s LAO production of The Turn of the Screw. In Onegin, she resorted much of the time to standard stock-opera poses that helped project sound into the Pavilion but occasionally left something to be desired in terms of dramatic tension.
The sets and costumes by Anthony McDonald range from puzzling to functional to dazzling; the most puzzling were the paintings on the scrims that precede each of the scenes (including an opening painting of a nude young man). However, the sets were effective in creating spatial separation that (from an orchestra seat) made the cast seem far away when that’s appropriate. Peter Mumford’s sensitive lighting was a real plus throughout the evening.
Finnish dancer Ulrika Halberg took over choreography duties from Linda Dobell, who died in 2009. Halberg had a lot to do because there are five separate dance scenes in Onegin. Among other things, she managed to create a very passable ice-skating scene in the third act (don’t ask me how it was done but it looked realistic from an orchestra seat). The second set made for a somewhat cramped ball scene, which had the effect of making the waltzing seem somewhat stilted.
Fortunately for all concerned, Tchaikovsky’s music shines through gloriously during much of the 3:05 that this performance consumed. The composer worried about his ability to translate Alexander Pushkin’s novel but the music has all of the heart-on-the-sleeve emotion that characterizes Tchaikovsky’s more famous works, and this production lets that shine through.
• For a change, James Conlon’s thoughtful preconcert lecture is just that: all lecture and no musical excerpts. Some of the lecture is contained in the article in the printed program; there’s also a longer version online HERE. There are also good articles online by James Kincaid and Leeann Davis Alspaugh.
• Perhaps they were obvious to other people, but I would have found it helpful for someone to explain (a) what the scrim paintings were and (b) why they were chosen.
• If you’re an Andrew Greeley fan, Monsieur Triquett’s witty couplets for Tatiana in the second act play a pivotal point in Greeley’s charming little Christmas book, Star Bright.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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