Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
The story is relatively simple. Mme. Larina and her servant Filipyevna are preparing a dish of some sort for her two daughters, Tatyana and Olga. When Olga's fiancé Lensky arrives he has brought along his friend, and their new neighbor, Eugene Onegin. Handsome, remote and tiresome, he ignores Tatiana, who is smitten at once. In the opera's most famous scene, Tatyana writes Onegin a letter professing her love for him, does not sign it, and has it sent directly to him via Filipyevna's grandson. Onegin confronts her, confessing how he was not meant to marry and humiliates and embarrasses Tatyana.
After several months we find ourselves in Mme Larina's ballroom where Onegin dances and flirts with Olga. Lensky challenges him to a shooting duel and Onegin wins. Several years later, Onegin finds himself at a ball for Prince Gremin and his wife of two years. Onegin recognizes Tatyana as his grown up, beautiful wife and begs her forgiveness. She admits that she still loves him, gives him encouragement, and then insists that they never see each other again, she is to remain true to Gremin. End of opera.
In spite of that basic outline, this is an opera that is story-heavy and needs excellent singers who can act. The fact that this is problematic in this production is due to the director, Jeffrey Marc Buchman. To my eye, the production as a whole, is misguided. Starting with the set, it consists of approximately two-dozen birch trees that never leave the stage. Therefore, we have trees in the living room, trees in the bedroom, trees in the ballroom, etc. It looks basic and inexpensive. There are several revolving turntables too far upstage and he has the majority of the action and singing on the turntables. The fact that the singers are so far from the audience makes several of them (especially Robyn Redmon, as Mme. Larina) practically inaudible throughout, if they are not strong enough to overcome the glorious orchestra.
We have the titular character (played by Franco Pomponi) as a rigid Zoolander-like poseur, who stands stock still and posed throughout. Yes, he is supposed to be bored, but the characterization should not be contagious. We also have an Olga, Courtney Miller, who towers above her Lensky in a Carol Burnett wig, a thankless role in which she appeared to be a character in Heathers. There is absolutely no conception of time or place. Perhaps most bothersome is the dead time between arias and music when the orchestra comes to a stop. The singers stand there and wait for the music to pick up again: no action whatsoever. Timing!
In spite of these directorial problems, there are enough glorious moments and performers to make this production a must-see. First and foremost is Dina Kuznetsova, a beautiful Russian soprano, as Tatyana. Effortless in her vocal technique, she acts with as much brilliance as she sings. Her "Letter Scene" brings the house down. At the curtain call, the sheer favorite is veteran mezzo Denyce Graves as Filipyevna. A lauded Carmen and Delilah, Ms. Graves is totally unrecognizable as the servant/nurse. We can sit back and relax whenever she takes the stage because we know that "here is a pro." Even when stuck behind those damn trees, you hear every word she sings. Her burnished bronze tones are absolutely thrilling. Unfortunately, she is gone after intermission and sorely missed. The Lensky, Chad Johnson, has a beautiful tenor, reminding me at times of Alfredo Kraus (the highest compliment) and his aria before his death is heartbreaking.
For my ear, two of the best singers are both members of Florida Grand Opera's Young Artists Program. The role of Monsieur Triquet is almost a throwaway if not well sung. He appears only in the second half and sings for a minute or two. Dominick Corbacio sings with beauty of tone and an understanding of what it is he is singing. Also an audience favorite, I look forward to hearing him in larger roles. Also, the Prince Gremin, Alex Soare, does not enter until the next to final scene, as Tatyana's husband. He has my personal favorite aria, and sings it magnificently. Stentorian, yet emotional, he essentially stands still and breaks your heart. Unfortunately, our director has him way upstage of Tatyana and an admirer. She keeps fanning herself and "chatting" with the gentleman, totally pulling focus from Gremin. That is unforgivable. I do not blame Ms. Kuznetsova, as I am sure it was not her idea.
The music is gorgeous, the story intriguing, and thanks to the noted wonderful singers, this production will prove enjoyable to even the novice opera-goer. I know, or should I say "I hope," that over the next few performances, the problems are eased and the evening flows as it well should.
Eugene Onegin plays through February 4th, 2017, at the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, FL. It will then play at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts' Au-Rene Theatre on February 9 and 11, 2015 SW 5th Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Please call 1-800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org for tickets and information.