Saturday, March 1, 2008

Review: 'Eugene Onegin'

Virginia Opera
Feb. 29, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Tchaikovsky’s opera "Eugene Onegin," like most of his instrumental music, is a deeply internalized drama. Its storyline, from Pushkin’s verse-novel, is a straightfoward romantic tragedy of manners; its scenic elements, in the Russian countryside and a palace in St. Petersburg, are sightly, glitteringly so in a pair of ball scenes, but no more than decorative. The drama hinges almost entirely on the singers’ projections of their characters’ emotional lives.

The Virginia Opera’s production (its first of a Russian opera) boasts a vocally capable but dramatically variable cast. Soprano Veronica Mitina, as Tatiana, is quite credible as a naïve young girl smitten but spurned by Onegin, a suave, jaded houseguest – she is passionate but suitably girlish in the lengthy "letter" aria – and matures convincingly into the regal beauty who swallows her regrets and turns away Onegin a few years later.

Tenor Patrick Miller is comparably characterful and in similarly excellent voice as the romantic poet Lensky, who introduces Onegin to Tatiana, then falls in a duel with Onegin in a rivalry over the attention of her sister, Olga.

Baritone Jason Detwiler has the voice for Onegin, but doesn’t really bring off the character’s self-absorption and arrogance. He improves as the hopeless suitor of the last act.

Mezzo-soprano Oksana Sitnitska’s is an attractive Olga, if slightly too hefty in voice for the role. Mezzos Susan Shafer, as Larina, the girls’ mother, and Barbara Dever, the nurse Filippievna, make fine work of their nostalgic duet in Act 1. Tenor Omar Salam, as the mincingly comic Monsieur Triquet, and bass Todd Robinson, as Tatiana’s husband, Prince Gremin, stand out in their cameos.The cast’s Russian sounds pretty consistent – that is, the Americans sound about as fluent as Mitina, who is Russian, and Sitnitska, who is Ukrainian.

Julia Pevzner’s stage direction is unfussily effective. Alexander Lisiyansky’s scenic design is minimal but evocative, although the great revolving arm of an unseen windmill seems more distracting than symbolic (assuming it was intended to be symbolic).

The company’s chorus and dancers make the most of their offstage folk choruses and ball scenes. The orchestra, conducted by Peter Mark, is warmly expressive but rather underpowered, and decidedly under-accented in the dance numbers.

The production's final performance, with Joseph Walsh conducting, is at 2:30 p.m. March 2 at Richmond's Landmark Theater. Tickets: $20-$85. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster);