Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Portland Opera’s “Eugene Onegin” goes soviet with exciting young cast

Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) and Onegin (Alexander Elliott) | photo by Cory Weaver

The fancy ball gowns and colorful military uniforms that ornament traditional performances of “Eugene Onegin” were gone from Portland Opera’s newest production, which opened Friday night (July 8th) at the Newmark Theatre. Instead, the company put a new spin on Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, placing it in the Soviet Union of the 1980s and early 1990s (for the final scene). This interpretation, directed by Kevin Newbury and designed by Daniel Meeker for Portland Opera, offered an interesting mix of realism that worked well with an outstanding cast – led by Jennifer Forni (Tatiana), Alexander Elliott (Onegin), Aaron Short (Lensky), and Abigal Dock (Olga) – all of whom are members or graduates of the company’s resident artist program.

All of the scenes of the first act were set in a playground in front of a large tenement building, presenting a humble space for the widowed Madame Larina and her two daughters, Olga and Tatiana, to interact with their neighbors and Lensky and Onegin, who arrived on bicycles. Props that added an 80s touch included the cassette tape player that Tatiana used to record her letter to Onegin and the boom box that Monsieur Triquet brought for the party. The costumes, designed by Allison Heryer, reflected the harsh times when goods were scarce.

In the second act, the duel between Lensky and Oneigin took place in an abandoned area next to a parked car that could have passed for a Lada. Moving ahead five years, the next scene occurred at an upscale art gallery and the final scene at a place defined only by a park bench.

Newbury wisely scrapped the peasant chorus (where gifts were brought to the wealthy landowning Larina family), since it didn’t fit the time period and circumstances. However, some lights in the windows of the tenement building should have gone out for the evening while Tatiana slept on the merry-go-round and dreamt of Onegin. Also, the line of women who showed their ration cards to an officer in the playground seemed out of place, since no food was offered there.
Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) | Photo by Cory Weaver

Forni conveyed a passionate Tatiana whose dizzy emotional highs inflamed the Letter Scene. She seared the stage in that last scene, superbly revealing Tatiana’s turmoil when Onegin pulled out all of the stops in his attempt to woo her away from her husband. Elliott also left everything on the stage, singing with a rich and powerful voice that wonderfully conveyed arrogance, eloquence, and desperation.

Lensky (Aaron Short), Olga (Abigal Dock), and Onegin (Alexander Elliot) | photo by Cory Weaver
Aaron Short exuded the poetic soul of Lensky, and his ardent farewell before the duel with Onegin was a highlight of the evening. Dock gave Olga a beguiling presence that made her flirtation with Onegin convincing.

Allison Swensen-Mitchell created an upright yet caring Madame Larina. Andrea Compton wonderfully portrayed the devoted nurse Filipievna. Konstantin Kvach injected a healthy dose of poignant honesty in his portrayal of Prince Gremin.

David Warner, bedecked a la Elton John in an orange outfit and sunglasses, camped up his role as Monsieur Triquet to the hilt, striking one ridiculous pose after the next while cavorting and sing on the playground equipment. Erik Hundtoft gave Zaretsky an imposing presence, peering down on others through his long, greasy hair that seemed inspired by Meat Loaf. Anders J. Tobiason easily marshalled everyone about in the role of a captain. An ensemble of fourteen nicely filled out the big choral numbers.

Because of the Newmark’s small orchestra pit, the production went with a chamber arrangement by Jonathan Lyness. The instrumentalists were paced well by conductor Nicholas Fox, but intonation problems among the strings marred the music.

The references to villages, matchmakers, a prince, and the nanny in the supertitles didn’t fit all that well with the 1980s Soviet Union. Since most of the audience probably didn’t know the Russian, the projected text could have gotten away with a slightly different translation for those instances and the singers could have sung the original words anyway.

Bottom line: Portland Opera’s production of “Eugene Onegin” is different but worth experiencing unless you are hung up on grand opera in a traditional historic context. The remaining shows will take place on July 14, 15 17, 23 and 26.
Onegin (Alexander Elliott) and Tatiana (Jennifer Forni) | photo by Cory Weaver

No comments: