By Robert Croan
Although composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was Russian through and through, his music was highly influenced by his mainstream European contemporaries.
His orchestral writing was a continuation of the Germanic styles of Schumann and Brahms. Eugene Onegin – his most famous opera, first performed in Moscow in 1879 and newly presented by Florida Grand Opera in Miami and Fort Lauderdale – might pass (aside from its Russian language libretto) as an example of the opéras lyriques fashionable in Paris in that epoch. Slavic elements such as the peasant dance in Act 1, a mazurka in Act 2 and a polonaise in Act 3, seem to be merely tacked on for special effects.
Taking a lengthy verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Tchaikovsky did for the iconic Russian writer what French lyric opera composers Gounod and Thomas did for Goethe (in Faust and Mignon), and for Shakespeare (in Roméo et Juliette and Hamlet): paring the plot down to its basics and clothing it with a melodious score that allows the audience to go home humming numerous haunting tunes.
Librettist Konstantin Shilovsky concentrated on Pushkin’s three main characters: the shallow playboy of the title, the thoughtful country girl Tatyana and the hot-tempered Lensky, betrothed to the heroine’s sister Olga, transforming the unwieldy original into a sentimental romantic tearjerker.
The impetuous young Tatyana writes to the handsome Onegin of her infatuation. Onegin rejects her and rashly flirts with Olga. His best friend Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel and is killed. Years later, Onegin returns, to find a mature Tatyana respectably married to the wealthy old Prince Gremin. He professes his love for her but is now, in turn, rejected, consigned to a lonely, unfulfilled life.
The libretto’s weaknesses are more than compensated for by Tchaikovsky’s music, and in the FGO production, which closed Saturday, by a fresh-voiced cast and an eye-catching, dramatically convincing physical production borrowed from Opera Carolina. Peter Dean Beck’s flexible sets allowed vertical posts to morph from trees into architectural columns, and to smoothly transform intimate small chambers into grand ballrooms, while Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s attractive costumes added a sense of grandeur to the larger scenes.
Despite a large supporting cast, however, the essence of this opera lies in the inner soliloquies of its leading characters, and some dramatic confrontations at key points. Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman succeeded in highlighting each of the principals in their solo moments, while moving the chorus with facility in the ballroom scenes and dances. A particularly compelling moment was the duet of Onegin and Lensky before the duel, where each character reflects sadly on their past friendship, now turned into unwonted mortal enmity.
The singers at the Broward Center on Saturday were youthful and enthusiastic, with medium-sized voices that nonetheless rode Tchaikovsky’s thick orchestral textures for all but the most heavily scored measures. In the title part, John Brancy looked dashing and sang with pleasant lyricism and a lovely legato, but neither his sound nor his persona fully commanded the stage in his solo scenes.
Lyubov Petrova’s voice was also light for Tatyana’s sweeping melodies, but it had a distinctive cutting edge that compensated for pure volume. Her letter scene had confidence and nuance, and she developed appropriately in timbre and demeanor as the opera progressed.
The evening’s most impressive vocalism came from bright-voiced tenor Martín Nusspaumer as Lensky. His sound was sizable and memorable, his phrasing sculpted and sensitive, and his stage presence striking even in the moments when he wasn’t singing. His aria, “Kuda, kuda,” brought out layers of meaning and shades of color, from subtle pianos to ringing high notes – the evening’s musical and dramatic high point. Alex Soare looked and sounded a little too young for Gremin, but he handled the character’s gorgeous last act aria with warmth and feeling – lacking, however, the solid low notes that this solo demands.
The orchestra played unevenly under conductor Alexander Polianichko. The opening scenes were particularly rough in precision, and touch-and-go in intonation, improving somewhat as the opera ran its course. Among the supporting roles, Robynne Redmon’s Madame Larina was impressive for her vocal solidity and expertise on stage, while Courtney Miller’s Olga was pallid and awkward, and Melissa Fajardo faded into the background as the old nurse Filipievna.
Dominick Corbacio sang the couplets of the tutor Triquet with blandly agreeable tenor tones, but too little variety between the verses of what is in any case a thankless extraneous insertion.