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Opera review: Los Angeles Opera's 'Eugene Onegin'

09.18.11
James Conlon
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

Saturday night, 10 days after its 25th birthday, Los Angeles Opera opened a new season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The company may have hoped for something a little more celebratory than an unpretentious, dramatically bland, star-free production of Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin." Anniversary or not, this will be a streamlined season with but six operas (the company had once projected it might be up to 10 by now), no new work or home-grown new productions and only one genuine box-office name on any of the cast lists –- that of the company’s general director, Plácido Domingo, singing the title role of Verdi’s "Simon Boccanegra" in the winter.

But the good news is that, well, L.A. Opera is still here. The season's casts include hot, emerging singers who could well prove more exciting than certain opera stars phoning it in. Most encouraging of all Saturday night was the sheer solidity of the company's arts foundation, such as the strong playing of the orchestra, the ever-improving chorus and the committed conducting of music director James Conlon.

Nor is L.A. Opera alone in cutting back this season. In this difficult economy, every opera company in America is on a tight budget. And L.A. Opera is still economically reeling from -- and still bathing in the glory of -- its venturesome and historic production of Wagner’s "Ring" cycle in 2009.

"Onegin," moreover, was overdue. Russian opera has been under-represented by the company. In its second season, L.A. Opera did mount Prokofiev’s "The Fiery Angel" in a sensationalized production replete with an orgy of topless nuns. Five years ago, Domingo celebrated the company’s 20th anniversary by opening the season staring in Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades." But that’s about it for Russia, unless you want to count a tour of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk" by the Mariinsky Opera or the premiere of "Nicholas and Alexandra" by American composer Deborah Drattell, which bombed.

The new "Onegin" comes from London’s Royal Opera, which introduced it in 2006 at Covent Garden. The original director, Steven Pimlott, died the following year. Francesca Gilpin has mounted it in the Music Center. Perhaps something dramatically essential got lost in the translation.

The most striking thing about the production is a scrim in the first act with the painting of a crouching male nude. Although unrelated to anything that follows, the homoerotic image might suggest that this opera symbolizes Tchaikovsky’s own torment as a gay man in a repressive society.

This is, after all, an opera of alienation and the impossibility of sexual and emotional fulfillment in late 19th-century Russia. Worldly, smug Onegin first rejects the girlish infatuation of provincial Tatiana. He is too late in realizing his error. She is by then married to an older man of high social standing and now rejecting Onegin, she will sacrifice her and Onegin’s happiness to do as society demands.

In a spookily intriguing minor mishap Saturday, that scrim twice began to rise and fell down back down with a thump. Was this the Ghost of Opening-Night Past when, 25 years ago, the curtain stuck for a moment at the company’s gala first performance? 

When the "Onegin" scrim finally lifted, it revealed a clean set by Anthony McDonald of river and countryside. Less clean were McDonald’s heavy-handed period costumes. There was an oddly cramped parsimonious feel to the two ball scenes. Acting conveyed opera clichés of yesteryear.

Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as Tatiana, Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis as Onegin and Russian tenor Vsevolod Grivnov as Onegin’s best friend, the poet Lensky, are all new to Los Angeles. Dyka has confidence and a soulfully dark tone in her favor. She went through the girlish motions of the young Tatiana and sang her big letter scene carefully and with a conventional show of passion. She handled the sophisticated mature Tatiana with grace but more pat passion.

Jenis was a vaguely sinister, cardboard Onegin. He, too, proved vocally reliable, possessor of a deep, rich voice. He was also overdressed, and his character might have easily been lifted into many another opera where a coolly composed Faust or Don Giovanni was needed. He seemed more at home dueling –- he shoots Lensky -- than as a dissolute young aristocrat. As Lensky, Grivnov’s tenor rang out, not always with taste.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the two most effective members of the cast happened to be veterans of Achim Freyer’s "Ring." They were the Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, as Tatiana’s vivacious sister Olga, and Ronnita Nicole Miller -- a young American singer with a rich mezzo who has done several small roles with the company -- as Filipievna, Tatiana’s nurse.

James Creswell had the right plummy bass for Gremin’s ode to his young wife. Margaret Thompson was a refined Larina, Tatiana’s mother. Keith Jameson was a less refined Triquet, the French singer.

Ultimately, the evening’s splendor was to be found in the pit. The muscular, dug-in string sound may have been more American gung-ho than Russian uncertain, but the intensity worked. So did the colorfully tart winds and the overall sense of propulsion and bigness that Conlon conveyed throughout. The chorus, meanwhile, seemed more dramatically attuned to the moment than did many of the solo singers.

And that’s the meaningful measure of an opera company's well-being. Soloists and directors come and go. The orchestra, chorus and music director don’t. At 25, at least L.A. Opera's got its artistic health.