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Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of  Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew David (conductor) Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago 1.3.2008 (JLZ)


Cast List:

Eugene Onegin: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1-14 March) / Mariusz Kwiecien (17-30 March)
Tatyana: Dina Kuznetsova
Lensky: Frank Lopardo
Olga: Nino Surguladze
Prince Gremin: Vitalij Kowaljow
Filipyevna: Meredith Arwady (replacement for Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who was ill)
Mme. Larina: Marie Plette
Triquet: Keith Jameson
Additional cast:
Darren Stokes

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Donald Nally, chorus master
Choreography, Serge Bennathan
August Tye, Revival Choreographer/Ballet Mistress
Director: Robert Carsen
Revival Director: Paula Suozzi
Designer: Michael Levine
Original Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

One of the most impressive works of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-8 season is its revival of the Metropolitan Opera's 1997 staging of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The premiere of the current production on Saturday, 1 March 2008, was met with the kind of enthusiasm that Lyric audiences express on the opening night of a new season. This kind of response is completely understandable, since the performance was the perfect combination of music and drama in an effective staging.

A key element of this production was  casting Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role. Known internationally for his personal  portrayal of the role, Hvorostovsky made the title character come alive with the genuine enthusiasm that the work demands. In his embodiment of Onegin,  Hvorostovsky contributed to the role both in his vocal presence and physical demeanor. From his opening lines, through to the impassioned final scene with Tatyana,  Hvorostovsky was as dynamic and ambiguous an Onegin as could be imagined, wholly drawing the audience into his character.

As Tatyana, Dina Kuznetsova augmented her fine musicianship with an earnestness and sincerity that made her role as believable as Hvorostovsky's Onegin. This opera crosses the same difficult age gap  found with Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Manon Lescaut, where the female lead must act the ingenue at the beginning and conclude the work with time-defying maturity. No mean feat that, and  Kuznetsova did it well, with a sense of youthfulness that was not an affectation. Her romantic longings in the first scene shifted once she met Onegin, and with that the transition  her vocal and stage presence also developed. The famous letter aria in the second scene of the first act was incredibly intense and moving. No mere flight of virtuosity, Kuznetsova depicted her character with a subtlety that suggested both Tatyana's apprehension  and the exuberance of finding love which brings about her resolve to complete the letter and send it. In this scene Kuznetsova's phrasing was remarkable in both expressing the music and shaping the text. Her range of dynamics, articulations, and vocal color gave the familiar number a rare sense of dimensionality - in fact, the audience for this Lyric premiere almost seemed to breathe with her in this scene, and burst into an almost instantaneous applause at its conclusion. She maintained a similar intensity through the final scene of the act, where Onegin's response to her letter must be seen to affect her profoundly. As much as the score requires Tatyana to project, Kuznetsova was never strident or harsh, but sounded as comfortable in the overtly loud passages as she was controlled in the softer ones. Here and elsewhere  Kuznetsova demonstrated her acting skills, which found their way also into the penultimate scene, in which her husband Prince Gremin is discussing her charisma :  in this production it was difficult not to watch Kuznetsova while Vitalij Kowaljow sang to Onegin about her. At the same time, her remarkable control allowed Kuznetsova to utter her enduring love for Onegin with an unforgettably piercing sotto voce tone. This  was a defining performance, not only in the context of the opera, but also for Kuznetsova, who raised the standard for Tatyana at Lyric Opera and elsewhere.

While the opera revolves around the relationship between Onegin and Tatyana, the other roles offer various perspectives on the plot. Of those characters, that of Filipyevna was portrayed well by Meredith Arwady, who was called to step in for Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Having sung prominent roles earlier this season in both Adam's Doctor Atomic and most recently Verdi's Falstaff (as Mistress Quickly), Arwady gave an excellent performance at Filipyevna. Her  duet with Larina at the beginning of the Eugene Onegin was solidly on the mark, and her later scenes with Kuznetsova were even more intense. Arwady's portrayal of the earthy Filipyevna was dignified and authoritative, with the the wisdom and experience she conveyed contrasting with Tatyana's youthfulness. Arwady is to be congratulated all the more for performing at a moment's notice, something that was not unwelcomed by the audience, who applauded the announcement of her joining the cast.

In fact, the entire cast was solid for this premiere, with the performances generally strong. As Lensky Frank Lopardo was convincing, and his flexible tone underscored the role. The romantic enthusiasm that he showed in the first scene  introduced his character immediately to the audience, and fitted perfectly into the emotional pitch of the production. Later, Lopardo's scenes with Hvorostovsky were nicely balanced, with the two seasoned performers playing off each other very well. He also delivered a compelling reading of the soliloquy-like aria before the fatal duel with Onegin. This production was the Lyric debut for several fine singers, including Marie Plette as Madame Larina and Nino Surguladze as Olga, who both were particularly effective in their roles. The resonant Russian bass of the Ukrainian singer Vitalij Kowaljow as Gremin  made the character seem at once compelling and familiar.

The staging itself, with its minimal sets, and detailed accoutrements, worked excellently  for this opera. Robert Carsten's vision helped to make Eugene Onegin convincing on stage, with modern innovation serving tradition admirably. In a practical sense, the staging allowed scenes to move quickly from one to another and, as such, supported the pacing of the drama. This, in turn, worked to augment   the masterful conducting of Sir Andrew Davis, who brought out all the  detail  of Tchaikovsky's score without allowing it to obscure his keen vision of the whole. His tempos permitted the text to emerge clearly and never flagged. As familiar as Eugene Onegin is, Davis gave this performance the vitality that the work deserves as one of the landmarks of  Russian opera and the nineteenth-century repertoire. His nuanced approach contributed appropriate  and effective drama to the score, while never losing sight of its lyricism implicit in the score. This  was an exemplary effort all around, another creditable production for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

James L Zychowicz

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