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Passion Fills Cincinnati Opera’s Eugene Onegin

Music Hall
07/14/2011 -  & July 16, 2011
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, Op. 24
Tatiana Monogarova (Tatyana), Edyta Kulczak (Olga), Stacey Rishoi (Madame Larina), Mika Shigematsu (Filippyevna), William Burden (Lensky), Nathan Gunn (Eugene Onegin), Steven Cole (Monsieur Triquet), Denis Sedov (Prince Gremin)
Cincinnati Opera Chorus, Henri Venanzi (chorus master), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
Mark Streshinsky (stage director), Robert O’Hearn (scenic designer), Thomas Hase (lighting designer), Malabar, Ltd. (costumes), Jay Goodlett (choreographer)

T. Monogarova (Courtesy of Cincinnati Opera)

Russian opera returned to Cincinnati July 14 with Cincinnati Opera’s Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. It was only the second Onegin in the company’s 91-year history and the first opera to be sung in Russian. For the Music Hall crowd, the language itself conjured passion. The rest was provided by an exceptional cast -- headed by baritone Nathan Gunn as Onegin, soprano Tatiana Monogarova in her signature role as Tatyana and tenor William Burden as Lensky -- an exceptional conductor, Vasily Petrenko, and director Mark Streshinsky, whose goal, apparently, was to lacerate the heart.

Subtle it was not. In fact, Streshinsky might be accused of sadism in his treatment of Tatyana’s rejection by Onegin. Not only did Onegin laugh at her love letter, but he shared it with a passel of country girls whom he allowed to watch (and giggle) as he confronted and humiliated Tatyana. There was little left in the way of compassion for Onegin as he moved on to Lensky’s humiliation in the act two party scene -- though he did cry after dispatching Lensky in their misbegotten duel – and his own shattering self-confrontation as he discovered his love for Tatyana (too late) in act three.

That said, there was plenty to love in this Onegin. Set in the period (late 18th-century Russia) it was lovely to look at, with a romantic/realistic set created for Indiana University Opera Theatre by Robert O’Hearn, warm, painterly lighting by Cincinnati Opera’s Thomas Hase (who used spotlighting most effectively for dramatic continuity) and lavish costumes by Malabar. Most of all it was Tchaikovsky’s music, with singers ideally matched to their roles and the eminently capable Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit, which brought the opera vividly to life. Petrenko, in his Cincinnati Opera debut, demonstrated total mastery of the score, keeping the players (and the audience) on the edge of their seats start to finish.

Gunn, tall, dark and handsome as Onegin, was a formidable presence throughout, even in Tatyana’s letter scene, where he walked on and mirrored her thoughts, as if there in the flesh. Still, he did not steal the scene from Monogarova, whose lush voice bespoke the enormity of her passion, as did her gestures, now impulsive, now paralyzed by fear. Tenor Burden was a sensitive, vulnerable Lensky, every bit the love-smitten poet, whose fateful aria preceding the duel was extremely moving. Mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak, singing Olga, Tatyana’s cheerful, outgoing sister, was full-voiced and flighty, giving full credence to Lensky’s jealousy as she danced with Onegin in act two.

Subordinate roles were generously filled as well, with mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi as the girls’ caring mother Madame Larina, mezzo Mika Shigematsu as Tatyana’s gentle nanny Filippyevna and bass Dennis Sedov as Tatyana’s adoring husband Prince Gremin. Tenor Steven Cole, who was a scene stealer, milked French tutor Monsieur Triquet’s birthday greeting to Tatyana in act two to the max.

The opera was one dramatic highpoint after another: the contrast between Olga and Lensky’s tender act one duet, complete with audible smooching, and the cat-and-mouse treatment of Tatyana and Onegin, he circling her with curiosity and amusement; the blue-violet letter scene where Tatyana rushed to her desk to pen her letter to Onegin, then took cover beneath her blanket; the beautifully choreographed party scene at Tatyana’s house with its sharply drawn characters (the fragile Lensky, flirty Olga and finagling Onegin); the climactic duel with snow falling; and the moment of truth in act three when chronically bored Onegin finally saw what he had been missing in the now-married Tatyana and her adoring husband and recapped her earlier action by hastily scribbling his own love letter.

The final scene was appropriately devastating as Tatyana, having confessed her continuing love for Onegin and her unshakable loyalty to Gremin, rushed off, leaving Gunn as Onegin distraught on his knees, drawing a huge ovation from the house.

Mary Ellyn Hutton



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