Strong cast serves Tchaikovsky well in FGO’s “Eugene Onegin”

By Lawrence Budmen

Dina Kuznetsova stars as Tanya in Florida Grand Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo: Chris Kakol

Dina Kuznetsova stars as Tanya in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Photo: Chris Kakol

Eugene Onegin is Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece. Adapting Alexander Pushkin’s novel, Tchaikovsky created some of his most lyrical, colorful and emotionally affecting music. 

Florida Grand Opera’s new production, which opened Saturday night at the Arsht Center, does full justice to this Russian classic with an intelligent production, a vocally strong, well matched cast and idiomatic musical direction.

The tale of the young country girl Tatyana’s delirious infatuation and love for the cynical, world-weary dandy Onegin, only to be heartbroken at his rejection, is classic Russian drama. A subplot finds Onegin in a tragic duel with his friend, the headstrong poet Lensky, over his flirting with the heroine’s sister Olga. (Ironically Pushkin was killed in just such a duel.)

Any production of this opera revolves around the soprano playing Tatyana. She must be a compelling actress with the lyric instrument to give wing to Tchaikovsky’s inspired melodic outbursts. 

Dina Kuznetsova proved a charismatic Tatyana. She brings a gleaming lyric soprano with an appealing steely edge at the top. Kuznetsova sang Tatyana’s Letter Scene with almost feverish passion and made one really believe she was in love head over heels with Onegin. She projected vulnerability and fierce determination in the final scene when, years later and married to an aging aristocrat, Tatyana rejects the advances of the now repentant Onegin. Her final cry of “farewell forever” was met with immediate applause from the audience.

While Kuznetsova’s remarkable performance dominates the staging, there was not a weak link in the cast. Franco Pomponi was an appropriately icy and snobbish Onegin with a booming, dark-hued baritone to match. Chad Johnson’s well schooled lyric tenor had plenty of metal for the confrontation with Onegin at the ball. Lensky’s aria before the duel was beautifully sung without overt vocal histrionics. Johnson and Courtney Miller as Olga displayed real chemistry. Miller’s attractive light mezzo and captivating stage presence was the perfect foil for Kuznetsova’s dramatic projection.

Alex Soare had the dignified bearing for Prince Gremin and his low bass notes and lyric line communicated his love for Tatyana. 

Robynne Redmon as the landowner Madame Larina and Denyce Graves as Filipievna were luxury casting indeed. These two veteran mezzos were scene stealers. Redmon’s warm timbre and imperious manner registered strength in the role of the landowner, Tatyana and Olga’s mother. Once a Carmen at leading international houses, Graves’ dusky voice is still powerful. Her projection was perhaps the best of the cast and she made the servant’s narrative of her youthful, forced marriage riveting. Graves received some of the biggest cheers of the evening at the final curtain calls.

Dominick Corbacio displayed a winning character tenor in Monsieur Triquet’s French couplet. Calvin Griffin (as Zaretsky), Benjamin Taylor (as the captain) and Damian Diaz (playing a peasant) were vocally strong and characterful in smaller roles.

Alexander Polianichko, a conductor with Maryinsky and Bolshoi credits, drew out the shifting moods of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral score. There was both surging drama in the confrontations and lightness and charm in the dance music at the balls. Polianichko obtained some of the opera orchestra’s best playing, the strings especially rich and voluminous.

Under chorusmaster Katherine Kozak, the FGO chorus sang with rousing vigor as peasants and aristocrats and they managed to execute Rosa Mercedes’ simple but effective choreography adroitly.

Jeffrey Marc Buchman’s production was intimate in scope, putting emphasis on the principal characters’ relationships and inner turmoil. Lensky’s denouncement of Onegin at the ball and the duel scene were chilling. Buchman also brought Olga to the scene of the duel. While not in Pushkin’s drama or the libretto of the opera, this proved dramatically potent.

Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s elegant period costumes and Helena Kuukka’s atmospheric lighting served the milieu well. Peter Dean Beck’s revolving set (from Opera Carolina) was dominated by poles with curtains added for the ballroom. This simple mise-en-scene had the virtue of concentrating on the drama without undue scenic extravagance.

Lovers of Tchaikovsky’s melodically rich music should not miss this exciting and compelling presentation of his finest operatic score. FGO’s Eugene Onegin is music drama at its best.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Eugene Onegin 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. February 9 and 11 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. John Brancy sings Onegin, Lyubov Petrova is Tatyana and Martin Nusspaumer plays Lensky at the Sunday, Friday and February 11 performances.

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Sun Jan 29, 2017
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