'Eugene Onegin': From Russia With Love
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
A row of birch trunks angles across the stage; the rotating blades of a windmill slice the air. In front of a dacha, a makeshift table holds an array of jam jars filled with bright preserves. Four women sing about their loves and dreams and memories, each voice asserting itself and weaving in an artful plait of sound. And behind the tree trunks, a fun-house mirror reflects, brightens and warps this image of Russia in a way that evokes the folk paintings of early Kandinsky, as if fairy-tale figures might emerge from the reverse of this idyll.
The opening scene of Julia Pevzner's production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," which the Virginia Opera brought to the George Mason University Center for the Arts over the weekend, was an evocative vignette of Russia, created by someone who knows it.
The production didn't always know where to go after this strong beginning; some of the good ideas got a little heavy with overuse (the windmill blades, for example, became a visual leitmotif of fate). But "Onegin" is in any case a top-heavy opera. Based on Pushkin's classic poem, it has as its kernel the dramatic monologue in which the young Tatiana pours out her heart in a letter to Onegin, whom she has just met; Tchaikovsky set this scene first, and then let it blossom throughout the work -- calling it not an "opera," but "lyric scenes" -- so that virtually every scene bears traces of its scent and color. But it remains an episodic piece, difficult to bind together.
For its first attempt at a Russian opera, the company proceeded admirably, bringing in Russian-born artists such as Pevzner and her set designer, Alexander Lisiyansky, and Veronica Mitina and Oksana Sitnitska, who sang Tatiana and her sister Olga; and clearly working in some detail with the non-Russian members of the cast.
The high level was reflected in the smaller roles. Larina, the girls' mother, was the warm stentorian contralto Susan Shafer, whose wide vibrato became part of her characterization; the nurse, Filippievna, was the ever-reliable Barbara Dever, her voice strong and forceful and idiomatic. And the dancing master Triquet, traditionally a bonbon for a character tenor, was unusually strong thanks to the flamboyant Omar Salam, whose alleged indisposition (he sang only one verse of his aria on Sunday) was not especially audible in his sizable voice.
Of the principals, the strongest was Mitina, a lovely singer who was convincing as both the young girl and the more mature woman in the final scenes, and whose voice had most of the lyricism, if not all of the heft, that the tricky role of Tatiana (both virginal and strong) requires. Sitnitska, on the other hand, had a sharp-sounding and rather clumsy little mezzo, and did not bring much depth to her character when called on to do anything past cavorting around the stage.
As her lover, Lensky, Patrick Miller (Mitina's real-life husband) showed a strong, pleasant and expressive tenor in the middle section of his voice, but appeared bereft of both top and bottom notes. Todd Robinson was a lovely presence as the older prince whom Tatiana marries, singing as likably, and with the same warm, fuzzy manner, that he brought to his acting.
Onegin is a role that demands charisma, impetuosity, subtlety and strength. It's a hard act to pull off, and Jason Detwiler is not all the way there; he provided reasonable outlines of the character, and at the end, when the tables are turned and Tatiana rejects him, showed promise of future development.
Conductor Peter Mark (who's also the company's artistic director) and the orchestra seemed to be enjoying the assignment, relishing the music with playing that was sometimes loud, sometimes heavy, but generally, like the production, right-minded.