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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Opera Review: `Eugene Onegin’

Eugene Onegin is his own worst enemy. Insensitive and

easily bored, he rejects the tender advances of the shy Tatiana and

realizes, too late, that he loves her. He antagonizes his best friend,

Lensky, kills him in a duel, and then wonders whether the falling-out

was necessary.

Alexander Pushkin made the worldly and self-centered Onegin his protagonist

in a verse novel, published in 1833. His account of the disaffected

Onegin became a Russian classic for its use of language and its depiction

of a self-absorbed society. Critical of the Tsarist regime, Pushkin

thought that its reform should come from the top down. So imbedded

in Russian intellectual life were his writings that after the 1917

revolution the Soviets made Pushkin a literary hero despite his bourgeois

origins. Scores of operas based on his works were written, primarily

by Russian or Soviet composers. However, Tchaikovsky was the only

composer to turn Onegin into an opera.

The composer was the co-librettist, with K. S. Shilovsky, of the opera,

which depicts the psychology of individuals against a backdrop of

both provincial and urban society. The music gives singers a chance

to bare their mental states against a lush instrumental background

that enhances the dramatic action. The Opera Festival of New Jersey

premiere of the piece in McCarter Theater on Tuesday, July 1, was

a revealing work of personal psychologies. The performers sang their

way into the lives of the audience with intense immediacy. Conductor

Dean Williamson guided them with a graceful reading of Tchaikovsky’s

score. One performance remains: Friday, July 18.

Most remarkable on opening night was Tatiana (Frederique Vezina) as

the shy, bookish, country-bred 17-year-old who falls in love with

Eugene Onegin, the friend of her sister Olga’s fiance. The slender

Vezina looked the part in a long white dress that fell off her shoulder.

Her impeccable singing let us into the soul of Tatiana. We heard the

tangle of her passion as she writes Onegin the letter declaring her

love. In the final scene she floated two separate unaccompanied single

notes of regret; they tugged at our hearts.

Vezina allowed Tatiana to grow and change. Withdrawn as a 17-year-old

in the country, she became the sophisticated wife of Prince Gremin

by the end of the opera. Vulnerable initially, she showed her capability

for cold, correct small talk with Onegin when he attended her ball

in St. Petersburg some years later.

Baritone Stephen Powell was a strong vocal presence, conveying the

restless unhappiness of the tormented Onegin with power and subtlety.

In his aria rejecting Tatiana’s advances he showed just enough humanity

to suggest that he might be capable of reaching beyond himself.

His pairing with tenor Richard Clement as his friend, poet Lensky,

in the pre-duel duet was a well-balanced vocal portrayal of ambivalence

and regret as the two friends find it impossible to withdraw from

the fatal duel. On the whole, however, Lensky seemed a less convincing

character than Onegin.

Mezzo soprano Olga (Jennifer Hines) was a lively foil for her reserved

sister Tatiana. The contrast in the range of their shapely voices

helped give a vivid picture of family life. Filipyevna, their nurse,

(Josepha Gayer) moved with crotchety elderliness and sang with clear

warmth. Larina, their mother, (Amy Wallace-Styles) also showed the

age of her character while singing with authority. Gremin (Robert

Pomakov) was a model of probity with his large bass voice. Triquet

(John Easterlin) provided a light touch with his French language aria

at Tatiana’s birthday ball.

Evocative movement contributed to the delights of this

performance. Director Kay Walker Castaldo devised both nuanced and

broad-stroke patterns of moving. She created realistic three-dimensional

scenes by having characters tilt their heads or alter the direction

of their gaze. Two ball scenes, with ever varied dance figures, kept

the opera lively. A trio of playful children added to the visual complexity:

they acted like kids. The principal singers participated nimbly in

the dancing. Overwhelmingly, Castaldo designed a stylish production,

though she occasionally slipped up.

The audience reacted with laughter when nurse Filipyevna said goodnight

to Tatiana after she had already turned in. There was no overt audience

response to a red Communist banner in the ball scene at Gremin’s palace.

Moving Pushkin’s action forward to the late 1800s, as Castaldo choseto

do, did not advance it enough to allow for the presence of red as

a hallmark revolutionary color.

I found myself writing off the anachronistic reference to the 1917

revolution. The red accents in the scene at Gremin’s ball were visually

vivid in a sea of black, white, and silver costumes. Scenic design

(Erhard Rom), costume design (Patricia Hibbert), and lighting (Helena

Kuukka) ratcheted up the dramatic effectiveness of the production.

Having produced a torrid environment for "L’Italiana in Algeri,"

the first production of the season, Rom and Kuukka devised a romantic

northern setting to open "Onegin" with cool pastels. Scrims

at the beginning of each scene softened settings and contributed to

the romantic ambiance. Depending on the lighting, ingeniously-devised

draperies read either as velvet hangings for the birthday ball scene,

or as birch trees for the outdoor duel.

A number of children attended the opening "Onegin" performance,

as did a bevy of young women associated with the Princeton Ballet,

and the usual mature audience. All received the performance with enthusiasm;

this production is right for every age group.

— Elaine Strauss

Eugene Onegin, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, 609-919-0199. The 20th anniversary season features Tchaikovsky’s

opera. $25 to $90. Friday, July 18, at 8 p.m.<

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