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Vibrant Eugene Onegin Opens Season

San Jose
Montgomery Theatre
09/09/2000 -  and 10, 12, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 28 and 29 September and 1 October, 2000
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Mel Ulrich/Andrew Eisenmann (Onegin), Barbara Divis/Heather Calvete (Tatiana), Thomas Truhitte/Jonathan Hodel (Lenski), Christopher Dickerson/Paul Linnes (Gremin), Kristin Rothfuss/Eliza Warner (Olga), Megan Dey-Toth/Stacy Cohen (Madame Larina), Monica Barnes/Lucy Salome Strauli (Filipyevna), Christopher Fernandez/Joshua La Force (Monsieur Triquet), Joseph Wright (Zaretski)
Opera San Jose Orchestra and Chorus, David Rohrbaugh (Conductor)
David Cox (Stage Director)

In the program notes to Opera San Jose’s season opener, Eugene Onegin, the writer points out that Tchaikovsky first had his opera produced by young students rather than by a professional opera company. In many ways, Opera San Jose’s production combines the best of both these options with thoroughly professional production values and singers capable of conveying the youthful appeal of this essentially intimate opera.
In this revival of the company’s first production, the cast includes one of the company’s finest alums, Mel Ulrich, in the title role with Barbara Divis as the impetuous, dreamy Tatiana and Thomas Truhitte as Onegin’s friend, Lenski. The cast was uniformly strong, with much to savor both musically and dramatically.
If there was any general complaint to be made, it was the overall volume of sound produced both in the pit and on the stage. In the intimacy of the Montgomery Theatre, all of the soloists have voices that can easily fill the theatre, even when singing mezzavoce. But the general volume level was kept at forte or a little more and the result was an unrelenting assault on the ears. No doubt when Opera San Jose finally moves to it’s new home in the larger Fox Theatre, the singers will have a theatre better suited to their voices. But for now, more dynamic modulations and less over-all volume would better serve Tchaikovsky’s story based on Pushkin’s beloved tale.
Certainly the production, directed by David Cox with splendid settings by Joe Ragey and opulent costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter, aims at intimacy. The action is played downstage as much as possible and personal relationships between the characters are thoughtfully developed.
Indeed the production goes so far as to re-set the first scene of Act III in a box at the opera rather than at a grand ball as Tchaikovsky specified. Presumably the logic is that the small stage precludes a proper staging of the scene, but the revised setting is not a suitable solution. Not only is the parallel between the early party scene in Act II lost, but the space in which the action is now set is so small as to severely restrict any movement, rendering the scene highly static despite the propulsive sweep of the score. It also robs the choreographer, Luba Markoff, of an opportunity, after such excellent work in Act II, to exercise her talents further with the scene’s important polonaise.
The only other problem with the staging, which was generally finely wrought and intelligent if lacking any real inspiration, was the decision to “stage” the preludes to each of the three acts. Cox’s banal staging of these interludes was completely at odds with the intensity of the music.
On the other hand, David Rohrbaugh’s conducting was full of fire and intensity where called for, giving the opera a lyrical sweep as well. While the orchestra’s playing equaled that of the singers in volume, none of the soloists seemed to have any difficulty projecting.
Mel Ulrich’s return to Opera San Jose after debuts at the San Francisco Opera, the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, finds this young singer’s rich, robust baritone in fine fettle. His presence on stage shows a continual growth as well with a restrained, economic performance the conveyed Onegin’s emotional turmoil without resorting to histrionics and scenery chewing.
Barbara Divis’ soprano has blossomed with a vibrant, full-toned lyric sound and a shimmering vibrato and an easy, soaring top that has grown in warmth and fullness. The role of Tatiana gave this singer a chance to stretch herself as an actress as well, and she presented a fully realized characterization. Her transformation from a willful youth to an elegant young woman was both convincing and compelling.
As Onegin’s ill-fated friend, Lenski, Thomas Truhitte brought his own brand of full-throated, robust singing. What he lacked in poetic lyricism, Truhitte makes up for with a clear, pleasing tone, smooth register shifts and an ardent, sincere presence.
Kristin Rothfuss’s giddy, vivacious Olga and Megan Dey-Toth’s Madame Larina both displayed pleasant mezzo voices and while Monica Barnes was far too young to play the old nurse Filipyevna convincingly, her voice and presence too displayed the kind of promise that Opera San Jose is known for developing and nurturing. Joseph Wright is another of the company’s rising stars and his Zaretski was another display of this young baritone’s solidly sung, richly resonant vocal gifts.
It must be the fate of many young basses to have to play characters far older than themselves. As such, Christopher Dickerson played the older Prince Gremin with a nicely restrained elegance. And though his voice lacks focus in the middle and lower ranges, he has a pleasant lyric tone and continues to grow as an artist.
As Monsieur Triquet, Christopher Fernandez had a field day portraying a mincing, effect dandy of a poet, his lyric tenor sounding unforced and his French clearly enunciated.
Eugene Onegin was performed in the original Russian and while this listener cannot vouch for the authenticity of the pronunciation, the absence of American sounding vowels and a general conformity of pronunciation was a credit to the cast and to assistant conductor and Russian language coach Irina Prilipko-Morgan.
Aside from the regrettable restaging of the ballroom scene in Act III, Opera San Jose’s Eugene Onegin was a fine showcase for showing what the company does best - developing young artists and maximizing their potential.

Kelly Snyder



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