Of all the operas of Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin is the best-loved, and its profusion of engaging melody is surely one of the primary reasons.
But it also helps when the cast is strong enough to give those melodies the ride they deserve, and happily, Florida Grand Opera’s current production of Eugene Onegin hits its marks in that regard, and in providing a fine night at the theater overall.
Well-staged by the veteran Jeffrey Marc Buchman and using an attractive set by Peter Dean Beck for Opera Carolina, this production looks lovely, and that enhances the fine singing and acting. We never feel that the set is an afterthought; rather the whole thing feels inhabited and authentic.
Starring as Tatyana on opening night Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami was the Russian soprano Dina Kuznetsova. She has a big voice, resonant and mature, and she made a strong impression in the letter scene, building surely and steadily to the climax. She also made a believably shy Tatyana, sliding slowly out of a party at which Onegin has appeared, and trying hard not to stare at him during their walk together early on.
Cast opposite her was the American baritone Franco Pomponi, who made an ideal Onegin: He looks the part (especially in Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s beautiful 1820s costumes) and he has a powerful, dark baritone that added gravity and seriousness to everything he sang. He portrayed the aloofness of Onegin well, and when at the final scene he has morphed into desperate lover, it was with the same intensity.
American tenor Chad Johnson was a splendid Lensky, with a lightly colored but forceful tenor that beautifully mirrored his character’s overwrought, and tragic, impulsiveness. His final aria (Kuda, kuda, kuda vi utalitis) was sensitively phrased and passionately rendered, and the large house acclaimed it.
Courtney Miller, as Olga, had a charming, flirtatious stage presence, looked pretty and she deployed her light mezzo well, though she was overmatched in volume and force by the other three members of the two couples. Robynne Redmon made a good Madame Larina, with a pleasant mezzo that stood out in duet with Filipievna.
Cast as Filipievna was the celebrated American mezzo Denyce Graves, and it’s hard to imagine this secondary role being sung as majestically by anyone else. Graves is in her early 50s now, but she still has a huge, gorgeously colored voice that was absolutely arresting to hear, and her performance provides one of the special pleasures of this production.
Bass-baritone Alex Soare was a very good Prince Gremin, singing his aria of devotion to Tatyana with warmth and feeling. Tenor Dominick Corbaccio was delightful in his spotlight as Monsieur Triquet, with an agile instrument that sparkled during his brief time on the stage.
The chorus, well-drilled by Katherine Kozak, had some trouble in their first appearance as a group of peasants getting in sync with the orchestra, but that cleared up quickly. They were especially good in the party scene that opens Act II, with a big sound that winningly suggested people having a fine time. Choreographer Rosa Mercedes gave them an interesting dance to do in that act, and there was enough variety in the movement on stage at that point to make you regret that Lensky was pouting rather than jumping in.
Stage director Buchman, as is his practice, keeps the action moving and looking natural, particularly in the ball scenes, and in the second act, as Lensky builds up to his challenge to Onegin, he shows you where to look to keep the story in mind: Tatyana is slowly moving offstage, face away from the audience, mortified; Lensky is standing far enough away from the action to stick out angrily, and the rest of the party guests are moving further upstage as they feel something amiss.
The Russian conductor Alexander Polianichko, a veteran of the Mariinsky and Bolshoi houses, made his FGO debut in the pit for Onegin, and he was masterful. His tempos never dawdled, and that made Tchaikovsky’s colorful music work even better. The orchestra was excellent as always, never overpowering the singers, but always bringing this vibrant, emotional score to vivid life.
Kudos, too, to lighting designer Helena Kuukka, whose duel scene in Act II was lit in a kind of otherworldly bluish purple that gave the scene a kind of unreality that helped underscore its senselessness.
Thanks to Tchaikovsky’s prodigious melodic invention, Eugene Onegin remains one of the only Russian operas in regular repertory around the world, and its story, with its sad-but-realistic ending, speaks well to modern sensibilities. FGO’s mounting of this work is a pleasure to look at and with its fine cast of good singers in the lead and supporting roles, it’s an even greater pleasure to hear.
Eugene Onegin can be seen Friday and Saturday night at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami and on Feb. 9 and 11 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. On Friday and Feb. 11, Tatyana will be sung by Lyubov Petrova, Onegin by John Brancy, and Lensky by Martin Nusspaumer. For the Broward performances, Melissa Fajardo will sing Filipievna. For more information or to buy tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.