Alexander Elliot

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.

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Preview: ‘Onegin’ with a Gen X twist

Stage director Kevin Newbury talks about his new "Eugene Onegin," set amid the crumbling of the Soviet era, for Portland Opera

Last August opera director Kevin Newbury flew from his home in New York to meet with the Portland Opera creative team to brainstorm for Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky dramatic opera that will open Friday in the Newmark Theatre. As part of the life of a contemporary opera director, Newbury has spent his career jetting around the country working with houses in St. Louis, the famed Santa Fe Opera, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Boston, to name just a few, including Portland Opera for its well-received West Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei in 2012. Newbury is well-composed, youthful, tack-sharp, passionate about his work. He speaks in a gentle voice with a well-thought-out command of opera, his place in it, and where he’d like to see the oft-embattled art form go.

Ilya Repin, "Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel," 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

Ilya Repin, “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s Duel,” 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

In 2010 he staged a traditional production of Onegin in St. Louis, delicately counterbalancing its romantic pastoralism and the slightly intimidating cosmopolitan worlds that the two main characters, Tatiana and Eugene, navigate. Critics and audiences raved about it, calling it a well-directed traditional performance that celebrated the soprano and musical drama of Tchaikovsky.

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