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Vsevolod Grivnov as Lensky and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga [Photo by Robert Millard for LA Opera]
02 Oct 2011

Eugene Onegin, Los Angeles

Kudos to the Los Angeles Opera Company for expanding its heretofore limited Russian repertoire and opening its 26th season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The romantic work based on the novel in verse of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, is likely everyone’s favorite Tchaikovsky opera.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin Dalibor Jenis; Tatiana: Oksana Dyka; Lensky: Vsevolod Grivnov; Olga: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Larina: Margaret Thompson;Filipievna: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Gremin: James Cresswell; Trinquet:Keith Jameson. Orchestra and chorus of the Los Angeles Opera. Conductor: James Conlon. Original Production: Steven Pimlott (deceased). Original Director: Steven Pimlott. Director: Francesca Gilpin. Scenic and Costume Designer: Antony McDonald. Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford. Original Choreographer: Linda Dobell (deceased). Choreographer: Ulrika Hallberg.

Above: Vsevolod Grivnov as Lensky and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga

All photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera

 

Kudos too, for having presenting the work in a production created by the late Stephen Pimlott for the Royal Opera House and the and the Finnish National Opera (more about this later) which, though it sparked discontent at its 2006 London premiere, introduces a new view of the tale.

Whereas Pushkin narrated his lengthy lyrical poem filled with wit, cynicism, and psychological insights, Tchaikovsky and his librettist Konstantin Shilovsky reduced the work to intimate scenes focused directly on their principal characters. In both versions, however, the story is set at a time when rank and status mattered, when women were essentially powerless. Eugene Onegin, the eponymous protagonist (one can’t call him a hero) of the work, is the wealthy neighbor of the widow Larina and her young daughters, Olga and Tatiana. Onegin, who has wandered the world, lives the dissolute life of a Byronic Don Juan, and carries himself with the aristocratic mien of Jane Austen’s Mr. D’Arcy, is introduced to the Larin household by the poet Lensky, in love with Olga. The three woman, attended by a nanny, live as did Elizabeth Bennett, a modest country life. But in this story, it takes only a glance for young Tatiana to fall in love with the elegant Onegin. The same night, unable to sleep, overflowing with passion and impetuosity, she writes a letter to Onegin offering him her heart.

When the two meet the next morning Onegin honorably, but coldly returns the humiliated girl’s letter and rejects her love. Later, bored at a local ball, he flirts with Olga and incenses Lensky to the point where the poet challenges him to a duel Lensky is killed and Onegin returns to his aimless wandering life. When, in Act 3 Onegin and Tatiana meet again, she is the wife of a prince. Now it is Onegin who will write a letter and plead for love. Tatiana first upbraids him for his past cruelty, then confesses that she still loves him. But refusing to renounce her vows, she leaves him alone to his despair. Is this a story of payback, as one reviewer described it? Is it about class and caste? Is it about a country girl’s solid values, set against the nihilism of a sybaritic life? Or does it reflect as many Pushkin scholars believe, the battles raging within Pushkin himself? It should not be surprising to find new interpretations of the work.

Though not a cast well-known to American opera goers, Los Angeles assembled four stellar principals with knowledge of the language and familiarity with their roles, which always brings a a sense of ease to a production. Baritone Dalibor Jenis was a full voiced, if somewhat stiffly mannered Onegin, until the last scene when rejected by Tatiana, jacketless and unkempt, he seemed to me a maddened Don Jose. Oksana Dyka’s role as Tatiana took her in an opposite emotional direction. In voice and manner she made the transition from love starved teen ager to mature woman convincingly. I loved tenor Vsevolod Grivnov’s ringing top voice as Lensky’s but sometimes I think I love every tenor as Lensky. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sang Olga, and Margaret Thompson, her mother, Larina with assurance and ease. There were three young American artists in the cast. Ronnita Nicole Miller as Filipievna, the nanny, has a rich voice wonderfully under control. James Cresswell sang Prince Gremin’s aria with magnificent sonority and hit the low notes, but still lacks that “innerness” that brings subtlety and shading. Keith Jameson was a silky voiced Trinquet.

eon8344.pngDalibor Jenis as Onegin and Oksana Dyka as Tatiana

In the emotion-filled dramatic scenes that Tchaikovsky set, not only the characters, but his music speak directly to our hearts. Conductor James Conlon led the orchestra in a pulsing, radiant performance.

Pimlott’s intelligent production deserves a review of its own despite some incomprehensible stagings: why Tatiana writes a letter bursting with passion while bent over on the floor, I’ll never know. And why the glittering third act “polonaise” is performed before a scrim depicting death, remains a mystery to me. Suffice it now to say that with this production Pimlott introduces us to Pushkin’s narrative viewpoint. Aided by Antony McDonald’s sometimes outlandish costumes and Peter Mumford’s always dramatic lighting, he gives us something of Pushkin’s distant view of his characters by staging the action as though painterly images set within a frame.

One last word about Tchaikovsky’s music. Tatiana, Lensky, Gremin and Onegin have the four great arias of this opera. Leaving the theater, I could recall snatches of the first three, all of which declare love, but not of Onegin’s. His is the one about rejection.

And one other last word to thank Placido Domingo and the Opera Company for including a touching tribute to Salvatore Licitra in its program.

Estelle Gilson

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