Opera NEO’s Compelling ‘Eugene Onegin’ Soars in the Golden Triangle

Producing Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s beloved but demanding opera Eugene Onegin was surely an act of faith by Opera NEO’s Artistic Director Peter Kozma. San Diego Opera, for example, hasn’t touched this challenging score in decades.

Rachel Blaustein & Luke Harnish [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Kozma, who both directed the production, sung in Russian, and conducted the orchestra, was fortunate to have enough strong vocalists in the current season’s Summer Festival to carry out Tchaikovsky’s musical and dramatic demands successfully. Thursday’s opening of Eugene Onegin at La Jolla Country Day School’s Four Flowers Theater revealed consistently polished singing coupled with a compelling, well-focused dramatic arc. My potent memories of Lyric Opera Chicago’s early 1980s production of Eugene Onegin with Mirella Freni as Tatyana and Nicolay Ghiaurov as Prince Gremin always set my expectations high for this Tchaikovsky gem, and I left the Opera NEO production more than satisfied.

Based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, the story of Eugene Onegin presents a highly unusual triangle. Set in  early 19th-century Russia, Tatyana, the younger sibling in the household of landed gentry far from the city, falls madly in love with Onegin, a dashing but slightly older and more sophisticated neighbor of equal social standing. Onegin casually rejects Tatyana’s brash romantic overtures, sent in a letter, and leaves the country after killing his friend Vladimir Lensky in a duel. When Onegin returns six years later and finds that Tatyana is now happily married to the older Prince Gremin, he realizes his mistake rejecting Tatyana and tries to win her back. She confesses that although she may still love Onegin, she is not going to the leave the Prince and her place in St. Petersburg society.

Luke Harnish & Eugene Onegin ensemble [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Rachel Blaustein gave us a Tatyana to cherish, at first a complex mix of youthful reticence and wildly impassioned outpourings that grew over the opera’s course into a passionate, mature woman who knows her own mind and finds the strength to carry out her resolve. Her brilliant lyric soprano animated her first act Letter Scene, and it turned into gleaming, steely resolve in her final confrontation with Onegin. Baritone Luke Harnish sang a confident, richly modulated Onegin, especially as the self-possessed aristocrat in the opera’s opening scenes. Onegin’s psychological breakdown in the third act, his anguished self-recrimination colored and shaped by the experience of the composer’s own catastrophic marriage, needed that level of probing emotional depth just beyond Harnish’s reach.

Dane Suarez [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Tenor Dane Suarez’s brash, volatile Lensky easily convinced us of his need to challenge Onegin to a duel over the latter’s innocently mischievous flirting at a party with Olga, Lensky’s intended. Suarez’s wrenching farewell aria prior to the second act duel gave us a vocal tour de force of surpassing splendor. Holly N. Dodson used her warm, expansive mezzo-soprano to create an exceptionally gentle, compassionate Filippyevna, Tatyana’s servant confidante.

Bass-baritone Jason Zacher communicated the grace and dignity of Prince Gremin, and even though this is one of the classic bass roles of opera, he navigated the Prince’s lowest notes with resonant confidence. Sarabeth Belón’s saucy Olga and Rachel Deatherage’s sweetly overbearing Madame Larina agreeably completed Tatyana’s family members.

Chorus Master John Elam trained his ensemble exceedingly well: the pair of rousing peasant choruses in the first act opened the opera on an auspiciously vibrant note. Kozma’s 36-member orchestra, large by Opera NEO standards, gave a favorable account of Tchaikovsky’s voluptuous score, with the exception of the upper strings, whose pitch at times proved less than rock solid. Kozma’s orchestral tempos and his pacing of the dramatic action suited my expectations to a T.

Taylor Payne’s costumes, not precisely period yet not rakishly contemporary, gave the opera the sleek sophistication it requires, and the umbrellas neatly symbolized the power of community expectations. The set recycled the moveable panels from Opera NEO’s first production, although projections of the verdant Russian countryside and—surprise, surprise—close-ups of birch trees, helped place the opera.

Opera NEO opened this production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” on Thursday, August 8, 2019, at the La Jolla Country Day School’s Four Flowers Theater. Another performance is slated in the same venue for August 10.

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