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During its thirty-three seasons under Artistic Director Peter Mark, Virginia Opera has racked up an impressive array of repertoire beyond the bread-and-butter La Bohèmes or La Traviatas. Highlights of recent seasons have been Handel's Julius Caesar and Aggrippina as well as Wagner's Die Wälkure and Tristan und Isolde. The company has kept its $6 million dollar budget in the black while touring four operas annually between three markets: Norfolk, Fairfax, and Richmond. Its audience averages 50,000 while its innovative educational outreach programs are seen by 200,000 public school students.
Peter Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is the ideal as Peter Mark's choice for the company's first Russian Opera. The libretto, written by Konstantin Shilovsky and the composer, is a good condensation of a classic of Russian Literature, Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse of the same title. The digressive narrator is omitted while the drama is tightened around five main characters. After squandering his parent's inheritance, Eugene Onegin inherits a country mansion from his uncle. The emotionally cold and bored court dandy becomes a friend of a minor poet, Vladimir Lensky, whose estate adjoins that of Onegin. Lensky's fiancée, Olga, is the flirtatious younger daughter of the Larina widow who owns another estate. Olga's sister, Tatiana, is addicted to romance novels and falls in love with Onegin when he and Lensky visit. During the famous "Letter Scene," Tatiana pours out her naïve heart to Onegin who subsequently coldly rejects her. At Tatiana's birthday party, the bored Onegin flirts with Olga leading to Lensky's challenging him to a duel. Lensky is killed and Onegin travels for several years. Upon his return to St. Petersburg, Onegin finds Tatiana is married to one of his relatives, the elderly Prince Gremin, and she is the toast of court society. Onegin claims he has fallen in love with her. In the opera's climax, Tatiana admits she still loves him, doubts his love for her, and rejects him. Shattered, Onegin collapses.
Virginia Opera has an enviable reputation nationally for identifying and presenting the finest young singer-actors and this production was no exception. Modern audiences demand more on-stage verisimilitude than the old axiom "opera is when the fat lady sings." Both leading ladies should go far since their combination of both slim appearances and solid vocal qualities are in high demand. Soprano Veronica Mitina, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, was perfect visually and vocally as both the love-sick teenage Tatiana and as a leader of court society. Truthful acting was united with a firm and powerful, tightly focused voice. Her warm timbre was pleasing and her delivery of the Letter Scene was riveting. Mezzo-soprano Oksana Sitnitska's darker sound made a good contrast to Mitina's tone with both voices remaining clear in ensembles. The Ukrainian born Sitnitska portrayed the frivolous and flirtatious Olga's thought-less character well. Possessing a fine, mellow timbre, tenor Patrick Miller was ideal as the passionate poet Lenksy. His intonation was impeccable and his palette of tonal color was resourcefully deployed. He conveyed all the tragic pathos in his arioso before the duel. Baritone Jason Detwiler brought considerable depth to the role of Eugene Onegin. His warm and firmly focused voice was combined with subtle acting, taking the ennui-haunted court dandy of Act I and the selfish instigator of the Act II duel through to the emotionally devastated lover of Act III. Basso-cantante Todd Robinson fully conveyed the deep affection of Prince Gremin for Tatiana during the famous Act III aria.
Supporting roles were strongly cast. Mezzo-contralto Susan Shafer was unusually successful in the role of the widow Larina. Her deeper range made a fine contrast to that of mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever as Filippievna, Tatiana's Nanny. One of this opera's delights is the set piece for the French dandy, Monsieur Triquet, who sings some couplets in honor of Tatiana during her birthday party. This is usually a gem for an elderly character tenor. Tenor Omar Salam, a young singer with Cavaradossi and B. F. Pinkerton in his resume, gave an over-the-top performance complete with a feigned faint! A friend thought he looked like half of the team of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum from Alice in Wonderland. Baritone Brian Jagde proved there are no small roles, extracting every musical and dramatic drop from Zaretsky, Lensky's punctilious second in the duel scene.
Russian-born stage director Julia Pevzner created an unusually taut performance centered on the interpersonal drama. The standard three act version was made into two acts by splitting the traditional Act II, ending Act I with the party scene and beginning Act II with the duel. The set designed by Alexander Lisiyansky suggested "realism" while allowing rapid changes without a break. Stylized beech trees before a mirror, a windmill's rotating blade, and a rotatable three-sided house helped evoked the inside and outside of the Larina's estate. Five Doric columns were used in the last act to suggest first a ballroom and then a more intimate space for the Onegin-Tatiana final meeting. Mark McCullough's lighting accentuated the best qualities of the sets. Costumes, designed by John Lehmeyer and courtesy of AT Jones & Sons, contrasted country simplicity and high style at the court. Mitina, as Tatiana, was breath-taking in a gorgeous strapless red gown. The four pairs of dancers effectively suggested a rural ball and a richer one in St. Petersburg. Jessica Page designed the choreography.
While Peter Mark led eight of the Eugene Onegin performances, Associate Conductor and Chorus Master Joseph Walsh led this matinee, the last of two performances in Richmond's Landmark Theater. The Virginia Symphony's playing was expressive and sumptuous under Walsh's baton as he kept close coordination between the pit and the stage. The cellos were glowing and there was outstanding solo work from bassoon, flute, clarinet, and horns. There were two minor cuts in the score: some folk-dance music from the return of the peasant workers in the first scene and some minor stage business between Tatiana and her Nanny at the end of the Letter Scene. Having the peasant chorus sing entirely off-stage saved costume expense and sped up the drama. The lead peasant tenor had a wonderfully Russian sound while the chorus was up to the company's very high standards. The well-filled hall and audience enthusiasm augured well for the future of Russian opera in Virginia.