At Portland Opera, a tale of Russian love lost

The Portland Opera's "Eugene Onegin" successfully time travels without losing its sense of tragedy

By BRUCE BROWNE

The star of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Eugene Onegin is a young Russian gentleman who makes his way through the world without apparent care for anything or anybody beyond his erudite nose. Not his best friend Lensky, and not even the lovely Tatiana. As played by Alexander Elliot in the production by the Portland Opera, he is almost pathologically cold.

Fortunately, the warmth is supplied by Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, whose performance signaled to me that, again, the Portland Opera has put exactly the right artists under the lights.

Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) records her love letter to Eugene on her boom box/Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) records her love letter to Eugene on her boom box/Photo by Cory Weaver.

But then all the singers were well cast. Lead male, baritone Elliot as the eponymous Eugene Onegin, is a chameleon. Last month we heard him in “Sweeney Todd” as Anthony Hope, a part that’s much more a tenor caste. But last night, he was thoroughly a baritone, cutting through the Newmark Hall with the trenchant power of a Husqvarna chain saw. And yet he possesses a velvety timbre when necessary.

Aaron Short as Lensky, Onegin’s poet friend, and Abigail Dock, Tatiana’s sister, Olga, rounded out the more youthful roles. Allison Swensen-Mitchell was Madame Larina, Tatiana and Olga’s mother; Andrea Compton was the beloved Nanny, Filipievna; and Konstantin Kvach was Prince Gremin. This was a sterling cast.

We had no trouble hearing any of the soloists or the chorus. That’s the upside of the Newmark: It’s a 900-seat hall, as opposed to the Keller, which holds 3000 souls when filled. Moreover, the orchestra was not the traditional late Romantic band of 60-plus, but a skinny 16, so no contest in hearing each and every voice clearly. The size of the Newmark orchestra pit, and this creative and accessible orchestration by Jonathan Lyness might also be considered a downside. Connoisseurs of flavorful, borscht-like Tchaikovsky orchestrations might feel unsatisfied. Taken as a whole—these singers, the smaller more economical orchestra, the good blend with the staging concept and the intimacy with the audience—the production worked.

This intimacy that the Newmark offers allows penetrating, personal glimpses of each character. Facial expressions, particularly with Ms. Forni, were revealing. Subtle gestures, such as putting the cassette into a Walkman® (yes, that Walkman®) or touching up her nail polish, were clearly evident.

As the cassette recordings would suggest, this new Onegin production is set initially in communist Russia of the mid-1980s (the last Act takes place after the breakup of the USSR). Tchaikovsky’s original 1889 premiere was set primarily in bucolic, rural Russia. The set design in the first half is a community gathering area and playground across the street from a tenement apartment house. Lighting designer Connie Yun performed a subtle ballet of day into night and back into day using the tenement house window treatments and perceived interior lighting for this imperceptible slow motion journey. Lovely.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) and Eugene Onegin (Alexander Elliot) share headphones/Photo by Cory Weaver.

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) and Eugene Onegin (Alexander Elliot) share headphones/Photo by Cory Weaver.

Switching time period and environment is not in itself what makes a production more relevant. The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change. Lensky, for example, in the Tchaikovsky original is a gentle love-sick poet; this Lensky entered the stage dressed in a Brando-like biker costume, showing his more staid friend, Onegin, that he “owned” not only the playground but his love, Olga. His characterization matched the time warp. But the aria, sung so exquisitely by Aaron Short, can transcend all eras. Tchaikovsky wrote hundreds of beautiful songs; several are found in this opera.

The playground itself demonstrated the close cooperation of scenery designer, Daniel Meeker, and stage director, Kevin Newbury. Many of us remember hours spent climbing the now-deemed-too-dangerous metal jungle gyms, or trying to retain our lunches while being spun on the lopsided round-about. Tatiana and Olga alternate, as teen-agers do, between childhood and pubescence, using the equipment to great effect. This is, after all, a story of growing up—or not—and decisions made in the process.

The plot is easy enough: boy meets girl, sparks romance, rejects girl. Boy II meets Girl II in childhood, both fall in love, but ultimately both romances go up in gunsmoke. Yes, there’s more to it: a duel between the two men; a reigniting of the first romance five years later; and ultimately, disappointment for many—a true Russian tragedy.

The author of Engene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin, was not yet well known in 1823 when he began writing the novel in verse in an uncompromising iambic tetrameter. It was serialized in magazines over a 9-year period all the while keeping fastidiously to this poetic pattern. The public loved Onegin and avidly read each installment.

For Tchaikovsky’s opera, librettist Kostantine Shilovsky has carefully preserved that which the public loved about the Pushkin. The opera now has a reputation as one of the favorites of the Russian repertoire.

Tchaikovsky called this “7 Lyrical Scenes,” rather than an opera. Because it is seven distinct glimpses of Onegin’s life, there are sometimes orchestral interludes between the scenes, a few of which have become orchestral classics. Perhaps, for this reason, the pacing of the staging in these transitions occasionally freezes through the music.

Five years later Eugene (Alexander Elliot) returns to St. Petersburg only to find Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) married to Prince Gremin/ Photo by Cory Weaver

Five years later Eugene (Alexander Elliot) returns to St. Petersburg only to find Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) married to Prince Gremin/ Photo by Cory Weaver

This is a young cast—many drawn from the ranks of Portland Opera’s resident artists (and some past resident artists), and a few notables (bravo Erik Hundtoft, Anders Tobiason and David Warner) from the Opera Chorus. Isn’t the depth of the whole company wonderful?

The younger singers are portraying younger characters for the most part. Allison Swensen-Mitchell as Madame Larina carried a matronly warmth in her voice and expression. The Act 1 duet between her and Andrea Compton, as the Nanny, was a melding of tone and style, with Compton’s contralto tones enfolding us as would a babushka’s arms. Konstantin Kvach appears in the final act as the older war veteran and husband of Tatiana, Prince Gremin. His “all ages surrender to love” aria sung to Onegin, telling him that Tatiana is now at least deeply loved and cared for, showcases his sonorous basso voice in one of the hits of the evening.

Singing in Russian is nyet easy, except presumably for Kvach, who lived in Uzbekistan through his youth. Nevertheless the language sounded convincing. (Full disclosure: I know about five words in Russian).

Onegin himself is solipsistic and foppish, “On-egin–off-again” with his women, his friends, his family and the simple folk in the city in which he just inherited a home. He doesn’t mind hurting; in fact doesn’t see that he is hurting anyone until taking Lensky’s life. Elliot played him cooly—with almost a pathological inability to reach great joy or sorrow—until he is totally and conclusively rejected by Tatiana.

The orchestra, directed by Nicholas Fox, was well-balanced, even with only two strings per part, which is very tricky to tune. The late addition of the extra four strings may not have offered enough time to ensure precision. There were occasional opening night lapses, but never enough to distract.

If you are of the “I never go a season without a “Nutcracker” or “the 1812 Overture makes 4th of July for me” variety, take a chance on this Tchaikovsky opera. Have a blini at Katchka, then take in a Russian tale! Eugene Onegin plays five more times through this month. Na Zdorovie to Portland Opera!

NOTE

The Portland Opera’s Eugene Onegin continues July 14, 15, 17, 23, 26 at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway.

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