OVERNIGHT REVIEW: LA Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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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.

Information: www.laopera.com

55381-OneginPhoto.jpg

 

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)

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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 Cos 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 Plcido 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 Cos,
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 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.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

For a change, James Conlon’s 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 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.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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