Review: Ovations for Oksana Dyka, Dalibor Jenis, James Conlon – “Eugene Onegin”, Los Angeles Opera, September 17, 2011

For the opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s 25th season, the company chose a work it has never performed before – Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.  The production used was the 2006 production that the late British stage director Steven Pimlott had devised for London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Helsinki’s Finnish National Opera.

The Pimlott production, discussed in more detail below, is not without controversy, but provided the setting for a truly spectacular musical reading of this piece, with the expressive conducting of James Conlon producting luxurious sound from the Los Angeles Opera orchestra. “In Tchaikovsky”, Conlon explained in his now firmly established practice of personally presenting the pre-performance lecture every time he is scheduled to conduct, “the orchestra knows the emotion of the moment”.

In her American operatic debut, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka instantly achieved rapport with the Los Angeles audience. Her “letter song”, almost certainly the most  famous soprano showpiece in Russian opera, almost a quarter hour long, was brilliantly performed. Sung with high energy, lyricism and power, she convincingly portrayed a young woman’s yearning to escape, in the arms of the man who infatuates her, what she believes is a stultifying existence.

[Below: Tatiana Larina (Oksana Dyka) is overcome with emotion, having just written an impulsive love letter to her worldly neighbor; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Dyka, only in her eighth year of professional operatic performance, earned a sustained ovation at the Letter Aria’s end. At the opera’s final curtain calls, as soon as she appeared onstage, the seated Los Angeles audience rose to its feet for a long and virtually unaninmous standing ovation for her.

She was well matched vocally by the Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis, in his Los Angeles Opera debut. Possessing a dark, rich baritone, Jenis left a strong impression of the opera’s title character, Eugene Onegin – correct, but condescending in a humiliating rebuke of Tatiana’s socially unacceptable love letter to him.

[Below: Eugene Onegin (Dalibor Jenis, right) returns an impulsively written love letter to Tatiana Larina (Oksana Dyka); edited image, based on a Robert MIllard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

This opera, Tchaikovsky’s most famous, based on Pushkin’s masterpiece of Russian Romanticism, is about two men behaving badly. That Eugene Onegin, adventuristically combative at Tatiana’s name day celebration, and his close friend, Vladimir Lensky, manage to find themselves engaged in a fatal duel is the deeply deplorable result of boorishness and insensitivity on each of their parts.

Yet, in a Tchaikovsky opera, almost all major characters have memorable music to sing, and Lensky’s is unparalleled among Russian tenor roles. The Russian tenor Vsevolad Grivnov assayed the role with fervor, his ringing tenor impressive not only in his great aria Kuda, kuda vi udalilis that preceded the duel in which he is shot to death, but in his passionate duets with Tatiana’s sister Olga in the preceding scenes.

Grivnov had appeared twice before last decade in California, at the San Francisco Opera, most memorably as Grigori in the shorter 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” (See Ramey at S. F. Opera in Fascinating 1869 “Boris” Production – November 2, 2008).

[Below: Vsevolod Grivnov as Vladimir Lensky; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Any performance of “Eugene Onegin” that has artists of the caliber of Dyka, Jenis and Grivnov in the three principal roles and a fine orchestra under the baton of a great conductor like Conlon is worth seeing, but there is much more to praise. Ekaterina Semenchuk, who was a wonderful Fricka in the Los Angeles Opera production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” (See my review at: An Incredible Domingo and Other Marvels of the Los Angeles Opera Ring – “Walkuere”, May 30, 2010) created an admirable portrait of Olga, Tatiana’s joie-de-vivre loving sister.

[Below: Olga (Ekaterina Semenchuk, center, standing) caresses her sister Tatiana (Oksana Dyka); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

American bass James Creswell, with important early training at the Los Angeles Opera, was a sonorous Prince Gremin, singing the character’s melodious and justly famous third act aria with the dignity and security throughout the depths of its range.

Ronnita Nicole Miller was Filipievna, the old nanny to the sisters. Like Creswell’s Gremin, she was secure in her part’s deep lower register. Margaret Thompson was youthful looking and sounding as the sister’s mother, Madame Larina, and the foursome of Thompson, Miller, Semenchuk and Dyka were an inspired family group in the first act quartet.

Character actor Keith Jameson, who never disappoints in the portrayal of many of the colorful tenor “cameo” roles in opera, was the French language and dance instructor, Monsieur Triquet. Philip Cokorinos, whom I had previously given special mention in reviews of Los Angeles Opera’s performances as Baron Douphol in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Dr Bartolo in Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville” was the Zaretsky. Erik Anstine, in his Los Angeles Opera debut (two months after performances in Seattle Opera’s production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”), was noteworthy in the role of A Captain.

There are five dances in “Eugene Onegin”, but this production does not engage a large ballet troupe. The first act peasant dance and second act name day waltz and mazurka are actually danced, although the waltz and mazurka are enlisted in the advancement of the plot. The two later dances are sacrificed to effect (if one makes the argument that the dances as conceived by Tchaikovsky were for some purpose other than effect). One is utilized to introduce ice-skating to “Onegin” productions; the polonaise provides an opportunity for elegantly dressed residents of St Petersburg to gather together solemnly with not a single dancer in view.

[Below: the residents of Saint Petersburg assemble as a polonaise plays; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Pimlott, an advocate of “telling a story imagistically”, created visual concepts that may surprise those familiar with traditional stagings of the work, without being so non-traditional that they interfere with the telling of the story. A proscenium frames all the scenes, but each of the three acts (the last two performed after the single intermission) is dominated by a different classical painting (a male torso, a female, a lifeless figure) that fade as activities in stage rear come into view. Then the scrims disappear above the stage.

There is water in a pond at the stage right center, in which first Olga, and then Titania (after the letter scene) then the rural neighborhood women impulsively splash). A beached rowboat lies at its shore in the duel scene, and then the pond seemingly freezes over to permit an ice-skating dance.

The case can be made that Pimlott’s innovations detract from the opera. Yet, even conceding that the scrims, and the splashing water, and the dancerless dances deviate from Tchaikovsky’s stated intentions, they do not change the story line in any signficant way, and provide for a fast-moving, theatrically valid performance.

Ultimately, the opera is about payback – refined and genteel, but payback nonetheless. A young girl is humiliated by a gentleman of higher station. She marries well, and finds herself in a position, that, when he presses his case many years too late, she is able to put him in his place authoritatively.

[Below: Tatiana (Oksana Dyka, standing) takes the opportunity to humiliate Eugene Onegin (Dalibor Jenis); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Yet, simplistic as the story might seem in attempting to recount it, the opera yields new insights everytime one sees it.

Los Angeles Opera has assembled an incomparable cast, world class conductor, and admirable production team, making this a worthy investment of one’s time and resources. I recommend it unreservedly.