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A CurtainUp Los Angeles OperaReview
“Mad, bad and dangerous to know!” said Lady Caroline Lamb of Lord Byron and director James Conlon quoted her referring to Eugene Onegin, the title character of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s celebrated opera now appearing at the Los Angeles Opera.
Premiering in 1879, this production, directed with passion and finesse by Francesca Gilpin, brings forth the delicacy, lyric arias and heart-felt duets for which it is noted. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of a doomed romantic trilogy, it is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature, an all-embracing view of Russian life and society. Deeply moved by Pushkin’s cerebral satiric tome, Tchaikovsky nevertheless expresses the emotions of the richly drawn characters.
It begins on a Russian country estate in the 1820s, where dreamy Tatiana(Oksana Dyka) and her vivacious sister Olga (Ekaterina Semenchuck) are making jam with their mother, Madame Larina, (Margaret Thompson) and nurse Filipievna (Ronnita Nicole Miller). Their labors are lightened by a chorus of peasants who sing one of the familiar tunes for which the composer is noted. Unfortunately, the set seems crowded by the chorus and it’s not helped by sitting the principals in front of them before the audience.
Into this bucolic scene erupts young Lensky, (Vsevolod Grivnov) engaged to Olga, and his friend, the moody Eugene Onegin (Dalibor Jenis). A wealthy landowner and a young man in his early 20s, Onegin is a dandy. Tatiana is smitten and, in an aria that takes place in her bedroom, confesses her love and composes the Letter. This famous 14-minute scene is a tour de force for a singer and Oksana Dyka does it justice. With controlled emotion and dramatic lyricism, the Ukrainian soprano makes a stunning debut.
This letter is brushed off by Onegin who tells her he cannot be confined and can only offer her a brother’s love.
Act II contains Lensky’s jealousy, his marvelous tenor aria and the duel. Act III, some four years later, finds a melancholy Onegin at a ball in St. Petersburg. He has progressed from dandy to depressive with no purpose in his life. He encounters elderly Prince Gremin (James Creswell), a bass who sings an aria praising his bride whose passion and genuineness have transformed his life. Onegin recognizes his bride, none other than Tatiana, who still loves him (though why is a mystery).
The opera does not end in the tragedy so typical of opera finales. This opera is more mature. Both Onegin and Tatiana have changed and grown over the years. Despite the death of Pushkin in a duel at age 38, this piece, with the mellowness imparted by the composer Tchaikovsky, has a shrewdness and insight, particularly in the character of Tatiana, that elevates it.
The set by Anthony McDonald, who also designed the costumes, is bleak, only relieved by the large and lovely murals projected on the curtain. Alas, said curtain didn’t go up on opening night, descending with a loud bump after a brief rise. The second effort was no better but the third time was the magic charm, as the curtain ascended with a flourish. Particularly disappointing were the ballroom scenes with their bare essence.
The original director, Stephen Pimlott, and choreographer, Linda Dobell, are deceased but still credited, so perhaps their influence still colors the opera. At any rate, it’s worth seeing and well done.