Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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A River Runs Through It

September 18, 2011

Oksana Dyka as Tatiana in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

Even though it's the 4th largest company in the U.S., Los Angeles Opera is far younger than other comparable organizations. In its 25 seasons, the company has yet to get around to mounting Eugene Onegin so the opening of the 2011/2012 season of Saturday seemed like the perfect night to correct that oversight. And they did with a big, colorful elaborate production under the baton of music director James Conlon. The bejeweled gala crowd crossed the white floor covering into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for this most Russian of operas in the midst of a bright Southern California sun. And this time around, the opera performance itself justified all the excitement before hand on this most glamorous of nights. For a company with very little experience with Russian-language operas, this Eugene Onegin is a successful, solid evening of entertainment.

Oksana Dyka and Dalibor Jenis in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

The first thing that went right for the show was the casting. With the exception of Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, the principal roles were sung by native Russian or Ukranian speakers. And while these are names that many in the audience might not be familiar with, they may be very soon. L.A. Opera has a knack for casting known European singers just before they become international superstars. Remember that Manon and Romeo et Juliette with Netrebko and Villazon? Or Marina Poplavskaya's Violetta? The process is still unfolding for Nino Machaidze. The next name you may want to add to that list is Oksana Dyka. The Ukrainian soprano sings Tatiana in her first North American performance of any role. And she soars as the young woman whose impetuous disclosure of romantic feelings is roughly rebuked by the cold aristocratic Onegin. Her voice is agile and strong if not always quite as warm as I might have liked, but this is no doubt a major arrival for her in the U.S. Keeping Onegin relevant in this opera especially against such a performance takes a special baritone who can project a sort of aristocratic cruelty and still command attention. Dalibor Jenis, the Slovakian baritone who made his house debut in this role is almost there. He is dashing and brooding enough to explain why Tatiana would be attracted to him in the first place. Jenis projects well in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But some of Onegin's aristocratic overtones seemed to take a backseat in his performance to the dark-brooding masculinity that serves Jenis so well in many of his Verdi roles. Ekaterina Semenchuk returned to L.A. to sing Olga which she did admirably well. Lensky was performed by tenor Vsevolod Grivnov who certainly had the technical skills to carry the part off with ease even if Lensky's big second act aria failed to connect emotionally as much as it could with the audience. Of course, having the luxury of hearing him and many others in the cast sing in their native tongues made a huge difference.

I should mention that the orchestra sounded particularly good this opening night with more polish and finesse than usual. Music director James Conlon was on the podium and he chose particularly quick tempi for much of the evening. It was also the orchestra's first official performance under its newly appointed concertmaster Roberto Cani, who takes over for the well-loved retiring Stuart Canin after nearly a decade in that position. I should also mention local favorite, bass James Creswell, who has sung many roles for the company over the years and almost steals this whole show with his powerful version of Prince Gremin's aria in Act III. And speaking of local favorites, how about the great Ronnita Nicole Miller who turns in another wonderful performance here as Filipievna.

Vsevolod Grivnov as Lensky in LA Opera's Eugene Onegin. Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

The production itself isn't always as successful as the evening was musically. It was originally designed by Steven Pimlott for the Royal Opera House in 2006 and had a rather mixed reception then. From the outset things are unquestionably situated in the early 19th century as the curtain rises to reveal a scrim covered in a reproduction of Hippolyte Flandrin's Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea acquired by Napoleon III and now residing in the Louvre. It evokes Onegin's beauty and isolation and each act is paired with such a related painted image. The sets themselves are no less colorful and border on the psychedelic at moments. The costumes are roughly in period but do contain their fair share of neon greens and hot pinks. The sky changes color over the course of the day from yellow, to green, to red, orange and black, but rarely ever is there a hint of blue.

The main feature of the set is a river that runs completely across the stage dividing upstage from downstage with a couple of footbridges connecting the two. This can be somewhat difficult to see from the orchestra and the whole show may be better appreciated from the Founder's Circle or above. Downstage is a wooden floor and proscenium with doors suggesting the floor of a house or other interiors. Upstage in the distance are steep green rolling hills that appeared difficult to scale by some in the chorus. All of this does provide for some lovely emotional and pastoral moments with Tatiana playing in the water or the women villagers relaxing by the riverside. The river “freezes” over in Acts II and III which provides an excuse for some inexplicable outdoor ice skating during the Act III ball scene.

But this is one water feature that may cause more trouble than its worth. As lovely as it is in Act I, it forces the indoor scene into contortions to fit the remaining downstage area at times. Tatiana’s room in Act I and the study in the finale, are wheeled out on their own platforms as if floating on the river just behind the downstage area. Perhaps the biggest drawback to the space, though, is the highly cramped quarters that are left for the cotillion scene in Act II where chorus members and dancers are packed together tightly enough to restrict movement. Given that the lighting in this scene is unnecessarily dark the feeling is more speakeasy than ballroom. But director Francesca Gilpin does a good job of doing everything possible to work around these limitations and the physical and emotional interactions between the characters are well thought out. The audience reacted heartily at the end of the show, particularly towards Dyka and for the orchestra. So L.A. Opera's first Eugene Onegin turns out to be a very successful one, and, if you go, you won't be disappointed. The show has five more performances through October 9.



The set borrowed from the Royal Opera in London did not fit on the Pavilion stage. The Onegin set was too deep. Saws were used to cut the set down to size. This now foreshortened staging area explains the oddly cramped and crowded set.
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