Friday, February 22, 2008

The Virginia Opera opened its compelling, first-ever production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” last weekend at the Harrison Opera House in the company’s hometown of Norfolk. The production travels to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts tonight and Sunday before concluding its run in Richmond at month’s end.

Based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s famous verse novel, Tchaikovsky’s operatic “Eugene Onegin,” first performed in 1879, is a tale of unrequited love with some interesting twists. Its eponymous hero is such a cad that he rejects out of hand the young and beautiful Tatiana, who incautiously dares to worship him openly.

Meanwhile, Onegin’s charming, self-conscious sidekick, the poet Lensky, proves quite the opposite sort. Impetuously in love with the frivolous Olga, his immaturity and jealousy lead him tragically to a foolish and fatal duel. Years later, when a chastened Onegin, acknowledging his earlier misjudgments, tries to seduce the now-married Tatiana, he is rebuffed and discovers that the tables have decisively turned.

Tchaikovsky takes Pushkin’s rather cynical tale and transforms it into a moving, tragic love story with the young Tatiana as its focus. Making use of haunting musical motifs, he embellishes the action with two brilliant dance interludes — the “Onegin Waltz” and a memorable polonaise — now so popular they’re frequently performed at orchestral concerts.

The Virginia Opera’s new production echoes, in a way, Tchaikovsky’s Moscow premiere in its clever use of minimal sets to speed the action, including a dwelling rotated on a turntable to highlight the rooms within, and a series of morphing mirrors that chart the drama’s underlying symbolism. A windmill blade spins stage left at times, underlining the opera’s frequent turns of fate.

As Tatiana, soprano Veronica Mitina was clearly the star of the show. While her delicate, lyric voice occasionally had to push a bit over Tchaikovsky’s substantial instrumental forces, her phrasing and pitch were near-perfect. And her “letter writing” aria, the opera’s most famous and most difficult, flowed naturally and affectingly.

Intriguingly, the standout performance among the male singers Sunday afternoon was bass Todd Robinson, singing the small role of Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s devoted, much-older husband. In his single aria, Mr. Robinson articulated the Prince’s affection and gratitude for his wife with such passionate conviction that Onegin’s ensuing seduction attempt seemed an order of magnitude more despicable.

Tenor Patrick Miller created a boyish Lensky and was particularly convincing in the poet’s signature aria, which takes place just prior to his untimely death.

Baritone Jason Detwiler was an implacable Onegin, creating a near-tragic character who realizes all too late that his cynicism has forever destroyed his chance for the perfect love. Vocally, however, as the opera progressed, Mr. Detwiler seemed to experience occasional difficulties transitioning between head and chest voice, resulting in a noticeable and probably unintended unevenness in tonal production.

Save for a couple of early horn gaffes, the orchestra, under the baton of Peter Mark, suffused Tchaikovsky’s achingly romantic score with understanding and warmth. Onstage, the dance interludes were tasteful and elegant, and the well-rehearsed chorus sang superbly.


WHAT: Virginia Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”

WHEN: Tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m.

WHERE: George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax

TICKETS: $44 to 94

PHONE: 703/218-6500



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