• Opera Review: Passion and beauty make “Eugene Onegin”
    By Jim Lowe
     | June 02,2013
    Photo by Max Kraus

    Tatiana (soprano Suzanne Kantorski-Merrill) reacts to seeing Onegin at the ball in the Opera Company of Middlebury’s “Eugne Onegin.” It will be performed through June 8.

    If you haven’t seen “Eugene Onegin,” it’s likely you will be surprised — and deeply moved — by Tchaikovsky’s darkly beautiful and heart-wrenching opera.

    It’s not the Tchaikovsky of “The Nutcracker” and “1812 Overture” — it’s much more powerful.

    Opera Company of Middlebury opened a production of “Eugene Onegin” on Friday at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury — it proved to be the best in its now 10-year history. Not only did this traditional staging feature some spectacular singing and the company’s best orchestra to date, it was consistent vocally and theatrically compelling. Save for a few quibbles, it was a great night at the opera.

    “Eugene Onegin,” taken directly from the Alexander Pushkin verse novel, tells of a young superficial aristocrat who spurns the love of the 17-year-old innocent, Tatiana Larina.

    Later at a local ball, Onegin’s flirtation with Tatiana’s sister Olga gets out of hand. Lensky, Olga’s fiancé and supposedly Onegin’s best friend, challenges Onegin to a duel.

    Onegin kills Lensky. Realizing what he has done, Onegin travels the world looking for meaning in his life. When he returns, he realizes he loves Tatiana — but Tatiana is now a different woman.

    This intensely emotional tale is set to Tchaikovsky’s deepest and darkest music, yet there is plenty of the composer’s effervescent ballet style to break up the intensity. It’s quite simply a masterpiece.

    Directed by artistic director Douglas Anderson, the Middlebury production’s success wasn’t because of any one element; rather it was due to the consistency and cohesion of all of them. Unusually, the spectacular singing was largely connected to fine acting.

    Soprano Suzanne Kantorski-Merrill, a Vermonter who teaches at Castleton State College, proved a brilliant singer as Tatiana, with a richness in her voice that added to the Russian flavor. Her “Letter Aria,” in which she declares her youthful love to Onegin, was riveting in its lyrical beauty and deep expressiveness.

    Bray Wilkins, a soft-voiced tenor with a beautifully expressiveness, proved a sensitive Lensky, particularly in his heart-wrenching aria just before the duel. Mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce was a wonderful flirt as Olga. And Eric Kronke, a Vermont bass, was especially effective in Prince Gremin’s one aria, albeit a big one, the most heartwarming moment in the opera.

    Music director Emmanuel Plasson deftly led the excellent 20-piece orchestra. Although the ensemble was a bit small for this opera, and the playing not always perfect, Plasson and his band interacted with the singers like chamber music effectively delivering the music’s drama and Russian beauty.

    There were two particular weaknesses in Friday’s performance. Darik Knutsen’s Onegin, though sung beautifully in his rich baritone, never showed an ounce of vulnerability, appearing throughout as simply a cad — rather than Pushkin’s hero who humbly learns from his mistakes. Secondly, Tatiana’s appearance of desperation in the final moments is contrary to the maturing of Pushkin’s heroine, and limiting to the power and grandeur of the whole opera.

    What is new to Middlebury is vocal consistency throughout the cast. Supporting roles like Jenni Bank’s nanny Filipievna and Lisa Chavez’s Madame Larina, both mezzos, had both vocal and theatrical presence as well. Much the same could be said for the chorus, prepared by Middlebury College’s Jeffrey Buettner.

    Visually the production was spare but beautiful, adding to the Russian set. An ingenious set designed by Anderson and Adam Ginsberg transformed itself from a rustic country estate to an urban Prince’s palace, creatively lit by Neil Curtis. Debra Anderson was responsible for the beautiful traditional costuming, and choreographer Patty Smith creates some of the opera’s lightest and most charming moments — including a rather risqué dance at the prince’s palace.

    Opera Company of Middlebury has come a long way since its inaugural chamber, “Carmen.” “Eugene Onegin” is first-rate regional opera, as well as a most rewarding theatrical and musical experience.

    Opera Company of Middlebury

    Opera Company of Middlebury will present Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” May 31 through June 8 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, fully staged with orchestra, directed by Douglas Anderson and conducted by Emmanuel Plasson. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, May 31, and Thursday-Saturday, June 6-8; and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2. Tickets are $50, $55 for the balcony; call 382-9222, or go online to www.townhalltheater.org. For information, visit www.ocmvermont.org.

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