Russian Roots Run Deep, and Strong, in NSO's 'Onegin'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

The National Symphony Orchestra is marking the end of its season, and of Leonard Slatkin's tenure as music director, with some ambitious projects. Last week, we had Grieg's complete music to "Peer Gynt"; this week, Slatkin is indulging his inner opera conductor with a full-length concert version of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

A common link between the two is Sergei Leiferkus, the acclaimed Russian baritone who was so wonderful in the 1990s (his recordings of the complete songs of Mussorgsky should be a cornerstone of any vocal library), but who has since seemed past his prime. Certainly his ragged, blustery turn as Peer Gynt last week was no indication that he still had an Onegin in him as doughty as the one he offered last night. One might hypothesize that this music, part of the DNA of any Russian singer, may simply stay in the voice longer than other musical strains. Certainly this performance, if admittedly a little frayed around the edges, offered a good idea of the shape of the warm, full voice of the singer's prime.

Hearing Russian singers do Russian opera tends in any case to foster a whole new understanding of the works. The greatest strength of the NSO's "Onegin" is its almost all-Russian cast. This piece is the seminal work of the Russian repertory, and it sounded like it at the Kennedy Center last night, with some performances involved enough that one could sometimes forget the absence of a set.

The highlight was Irina Mataeva's lyrical Tatiana. Though not a superstar, Mataeva is not unfamiliar on international stages. (She has sung Micaƫla and Zerlina at the Washington National Opera; her Natasha was a ray of light in the Met's recent revival of "War and Peace.") Last night confirmed the impression that she is a lovely singer, creating a three-dimensional, credible character with vocal nuance. Her voice can get a little strident when used heavily, but she seldom used it heavily; she sang with both feeling and intelligence, from tender quiet passages to a surprisingly full fortissimo top.

Another nice thing about Russian-trained singers is that the women are not afraid to use the lower part of their voice. Ekaterina Semenchuk, as Tatiana's sister Olga, cruised through some inky depths, making a nice contrast to Tatiana's silvery line at the beginning of the opera.

The men were not as strong. In the late 1990s, the young tenor Daniil Shtoda seemed like a singer who was going to grow into something wonderful. Unfortunately, the voice sounded stunted and tight as the singer thrust it into the role of Lensky, though he managed to limber it up enough to negotiate his aria with reasonable success. Gustav Andreassen, a Norwegian American, made a fine but uninflected sound as Gremin, Tatiana's husband, whose showpiece aria about his love for his wife is so appealing that it's hard to get wrong.

Unexpected was the fine performance of Robert Baker as Triquet. This is the kind of character-tenor role that usually is cast, these days, with apprentice artists or elderly former stars; it was refreshing to hear it sung so elegantly. Not many singers can move from a white soft sound to ringing strength in the space of two phrases as well as Baker did at the end of his single aria.

Along with all of this, of course, went the performance of Slatkin and the orchestra, which was sometimes involving, sometimes anemic and sometimes simply coarse. Delicacy was not Slatkin's forte last night. At the end of the first scene, the winds passed delicate chords back and forth as if they were potatoes; and the orchestra's tendency to stay a little behind the beat, particularly at Slatkin's fast heavy tempos, made the opening of Tatiana's letter scene, the musical and emotional heart of the opera, a veritable hash of sound.

Where conductor and instruments hit their stride were the dance scenes, which in this performance were offered not as diversions but as major climaxes, though with a most un-dancelike earthiness; the cotillion evoked not graceful couples but a rollicking beer-hall ambiance. The Washington Chorus also struggled with Slatkin's beat in the first scene, but generally sounded robust and healthy on a night that was better for its vocals than for its instruments.

The program will be repeated tomorrow night and Monday at 8 p.m.

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