- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

The Kirov Opera opened its short Washington season in the newly renovated Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night with a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” It’s a show that almost didn’t happen because its sets were destroyed in a September fire at the Kirov’s Mariinsky Theater complex.

The Kirov’s touring production, created virtually on the fly after this disaster, is a spartan affair consisting of painted backdrops, panels that look as if they were borrowed from office cubicles, a few decent pieces of furniture, and a couple of nifty couches. No matter. “Onegin” is a nifty opera, and a bare-bones production of this masterpiece is better than a cancellation any day.

Based on Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, “Eugene Onegin” is the story of a Byronic hero of dubious morals who gets his comeuppance in the end. Onegin cruelly turns back the naive but genuine love of the lovely Tatiana and toys with his jealous friend Lensky, a poet who loves Tatiana’s sister, Olga. He eventually kills the poet in a duel arising from the incident. Many years later, the now well-married Tatiana completes the circle by rejecting the chastened Onegin’s advances.

The Kirov’s opening night of this production was sadly so-so. The orchestra, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, was passionate, brilliant and right-on. However, that was part of the problem. The orchestra was so hot that it almost completely wiped out the singers. It was hard to tell whether the company’s youngish cast wasn’t quite up to overcoming this near-Wagnerian volume or the ensemble simply hadn’t figured out how to calibrate to this newly renovated space. Hopefully, Mr. Gergiev will solve this problem of balance later in the week.

In any event, much of the singing Tuesday was barely audible, as was the chorus, usually buried behind the backdrop. The overall sound, ironically, was quintessential, symphonic Tchaikovsky, but this is supposed to be an opera, not a symphony. Bringing the singers farther forward on the stage might have helped — the blocking frequently was questionable.

The Kirov’s cast struggled bravely to put on a nice show, and some succeeded more than others. As Tatiana, soprano Irina Mataeva sparkled; she’s as lovely an actress as she is a singer. The orchestra, fortunately, got out of her way during her lengthy letter-writing aria in Act I, and she responded by delivering the most affecting singing of the evening. As Tatiana’s husband, Prince Gremin, classic Russian bass Mikhail Kit also was moving in his brief solo turn. Baritone Vladimir Moroz and mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk turned in credible performances as Onegin and Olga, respectively.

Less successful, however, were tenor Evgeny Akimov (Lensky), soprano Svetlana Volkova (Madame Larina) and mezzo Olga Markova Mikhaylenko (the nanny). Mr. Akimov’s intonation seemed to be off in Act I, although he recovered nicely in the duel scene. However, he and the other singers were almost completely taken out of the action by the orchestra, so it’s hard to evaluate their contributions fairly. It should be noted that some of these cast members will rotate with additional singers during this production’s run.

A jarring but unrelated note: The Opera House’s new seats are awful. The forward tilt and the large gap between the seat cushions and backs make it a challenge to achieve a comfortable position during a long opera evening. The Kennedy Center trustees ought to have a discussion with their subcontractor.

**

WHAT: The Kirov Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $250.

INFORMATION: Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy center.org.


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