• Eugene Onegin at Opera Carolina - Review

    Eugene Onegin, lyric opera in three acts (1879), music by Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky; libretto by the composer, Konstantin Shilovsky, and Modest Tchaikovsky, based on the novel of the same title (1833) by Alexander Pushkin

    Produced by Opera Carolina at the Belk Theather, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, in Charlotte, NC, USA; opening night on March 17, 2012
    The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Meena
    The Opera Carolina Chorus

    Stage Director - Brian Deedrick
    Set Design - Peter Dean Beck
    Choreography - Mark Diamond
    Costumes - AT Jones

    Cast, in order of appearance:

    Madame Larina - Martha Bartz
    Tatyana - Dina Kuznetsova
    Olga - Dawn Pierce
    Filipevna - Victoria Livengood
    Vladimir Lenski - Yeghishe Manucharyan
    Eugene Onegin - Vasily Ladyuk
    Monsieur Triquet - John Kaneklides
    Zaretsky - Donald Hartman
    Captain - Charles Lang
    Prince Gremin - Kristopher Irmiter


    A beautiful spring day in Charlotte, very luminous and crisp thanks to some scattered showers that left the air and the streets clean and shiny, with flowers everywhere. It's St. Patrick's day, and oh boy, these folks from the Queen City take it seriously: there are crowds wearing green everywhere.

    I'm walking to the theater from my hotel just four blocks away, and I confess that I can't wait, I have high expectations after the build-up of the Eugene Onegin in-depth series, and the interviews with Maestro Meena and four of the members of the cast, with whom I'm by now on first name bases after several e-mail exchanges and phone calls. I feel like I know these people a little better than professional acquaintances, and I'm rooting for them. I feel a bit apprehensive because I want them to do well.

    So, yes, flowers. Young people everywhere. Nice urban landscape in beautiful Charlotte, NC.

    Hotel. Flowers. City.

    I walk some more, and get to the back of the house of our partners, Opera Carolina. I'm doing a bit of photo-journalism as well, because many of our members have been hearing a lot about Opera Carolina, and I want to give them a bit of a tour of the company. So here is the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, first from the back which is actually a better way to see their modern building, then the next two pictures are the front, next is the beautiful chandelier in the lobby, finally the equally beautiful one at the Belk Theater, and then there's a shot of the balcony and mezzanine.

    As you can see, a full house. All right. Now I'm seated. Orchestra, 5th row center, with a very direct line of vision to the podium. Nice, I'll be able to observe Maestro Meena's moves. Showing once more Opera Carolina's care of even the smallest detail, the blue curtain illuminated like a night sky works as a screen for a slide show. We read "Welcome to Opera Carolina" in English and Russian (with bona fide Cyrillic alphabet), and then we get a quiz with several interesting questions about the opera - four answers are projected, and they go eliminating one by one until the right one shows. To my surprise and after having studied this opera so much, I get only about half of the answers right, and learn a few more facts about it. Nice touch!

    At precisely 8 PM the lights are dimmed, and without any further introduction, Maestro Meena takes the podium, bows briefly, and attacks the overture.

    OK, so, now, my review of the performance.

    Let's proceed element by element, starting by the non-musical ones.

    Sets: They were good for the most part, but with a couple of problems. There are three clusters of tall columns that look like tree trunks; two on the right side, one more prominent on the left. The central area of the stage is organized in a path with the form of an S that contours the three clusters of tree trunks. (You've seen the production pictures in the first section of the Eugene Onegin series, I won't repeat the pictures here).

    These clusters which pivot around themselves, are organized in semi-circles, so that when they turn, they either look like a small forest when the trunks are facing the public, or they look like background when the space ahead of them is facing the public.

    In the latter disposition, other elements slide down from the roof: windows (which, when they are set over the more prominent cluster on the left, form Tatyana's bedroom), simple chandeliers for the Larins ballroom, and fancier chandeliers with heavy curtains for the more sophisticated Gremin ballroom. The duel scene gets just the tree trunks without other props, giving the feeling of desolate woods, with snow falling from the top.

    It all seems simple and efficient, right? Yes and no. It depends on the scene. They work well for the first scene with Madame Larina and Filipevna peeling potatoes on the right of the stage, in the semi-circle of the smaller cluster of tree trunks. But then when the peasants come for the chorus and dance, they get in the way and the stage feels too cluttered.

    This gets particularly bad during Tatyana's Name Day ball, in which the path in form of an S is insufficient for dynamic use of the space, and dancing couples keep bumping on each other (literally). What happens is that the cluster on the left is too prominent and doesn't leave enough stage space for the ball. It does work beautifully for the Letter Scene, and also for the duel, which is very beautifully staged, since it is done on the perpendicular axis accross the S, with nice lighting - we only see Lensky as a shadow, while Onegin is in the proscenium.

    I was expecting the same problems with dynamic use of the space for the Gremin ball, but surprisingly, the sets again work nicely, since the party goers seemed to have pressed themselves more to the back, to the very limit that the tree trunks (now doubling as columns of the Gremin ballroom) permit, leaving more space for the dancing couples. Maybe the stage director noticed the problem with the Name Day ball, and corrected the location of the actors/dancers mid-course.

    Finally, the last scene in the Gremin drawing room again is not very successful in terms of staging: there is one chair in the middle of the stage, and the tree trunks get the same disposition of the duel scene. This doesn't suggest the drawing room, and the repetition of the configuration suggests again the desolate woods, which feels a little repetitious - unless it was done in purpose, since the music does recover elements from the first Tatyana-Onegin interaction for the final scene. Even if intentional, the effect just isn't as beautiful as those of some of the other scenes.

    In summary, the sets work well for about two thirds of the scenes, and could have been better for the other third. But overall, this traditional staging can be called good.

    Lighting: Very good. Atmospheric, beautiful, with smooth transitions, impeccable.

    Costumes and make-up: Very accomplished. The simple life in the countryside is well depicted. Olga appears sexier from the beginning, matching her lively personality, and Tatyana appears appropriately awkward and tacky. The rustic clothes of Filipevna and the peasants are well done. During the Name Day ball, the neighbors try to dress up but still look provincial - which is the intended effect. Monsieur Triquet shows hilarious clothes and make up, in a very nice comic relief that the audience much appreciated.

    Then the transformation that the costumes exhibit for the Gremin ball is quite striking and successful. The costumes displayed by the characters in the Gremin palace are simply stunning, very very beautiful, sober, elegant, and sophisticated, with dark colors (purple, bordeaux, grey, black). In summary, these elements were perfect, flawless.

    Acoustics - The Belk Theater has nice acoustics. The sound from the pit was sharp and clear, and the singers were easily heard.

    Choreography - One of the high points, with very Russian movements performed by four young dancers, all four attractive and competent. Some touches were rather nice: the Name Day ball shows some party goers who can't dance well, reflecting the lack of sophistication of the country folks. During the Gremin ball, however, presumably the same actors/chorus members dance a lot better, showing that the initial lack of finesse was intentional.

    Acting direction, acting - Dynamic use of the stage was a bit chaotic in the first half of the show (counting the first act and the ball during the second act). From that point on, the dynamics improved significantly, starting with the very oiled duel scene. Entrances and exits and stage location of the characters were very good in the second half of the opera.

    Victoria Livengood showed phenomenal acting. She was perfect in all scenes, and the younger actresses had a bit of a hard time getting the focus of the attention back on them, since Ms. Livengood, a very seasoned performer, threatened to steal the scene every time she was on.

    In general, the women were more proficient in acting than the men. Ms. Kuznetsova found the right emotional tone for Tatyana virtually at all times. She contrasted very nicely the febrile teenager in love during the Letter Scene, with the heartbroken girl when Onegin rejects her, then appeared very regal during the Gremin Palace scene, and got at her peak in the final scene, which was one of the best acted Tatyana's I've seen. She was very convincing and touching in her ambivalence followed by resolve.

    Ms. Pierce was a lively, flirtatious, and sexy Olga. She was playful and very natural, very relaxed on stage. She is also a very beautiful woman.

    Ms. Bartz also acted the Madame Larina part well.

    Among the men, Mr. Kaneklides was a very funny Triquet. Mr. Manucharyan at first seemed a bit uninvolved, but then he delivered big during the duel scene. Donald Hartman gave to Zaretsky the appropriate gravitas. Mr. Irmiter wasn't totally convincing as Gremin, because in spite of the make-up, his youth relative to the character was showing a bit. Mr. Ladyuk conveyed well Onegin's boredom during the first two acts, but was less successful when he had to turn passionate in the third act.

    In summary, while nobody sank the ship, in general the women were more electrifying.

    Now, the musical aspects.

    Orchestra - extremely impressive. It followed commands perfectly, and delivered exactly what the conductor asked for. Volume modulation was impeccable: never overwhelming the singers, but delivering resonance and fullness when needed. Transitions were smooth and the harmony of sections was precise. One understands why this orchestra was selected to perform for the National Public Radio twice a year.

    Chorus - very good, no complaints.

    Conducting - one of the highlights of the evening. Maestro Meena was superlative. His tempi were lively, a bit on the fast side in pieces like the overture and the dances - as they should be, in my opinion. He kept things moving nicely. But then, the lyrical moments were very delicate. He took good care of the singers, providing always the right volume and never allowing anybody to be rushed, never lagging behind. All of this was very good, but the best part is that he was able to find the right dose of romanticism in this score, never getting cloying.

    Since I was very close to him, observing his command of his forces was very entertaining. Sometimes Mr. Meena would look incisively at a section of his orchestra and would vibrate his left hand insistently, like he was saying "come on, come on, come on, engage more!" and woop, the sound with thicken up and become more vibrant.


    Martha Bartz provided a very competent Larina. She was sure of herself and had good volume and projection.

    Victoria Livengood was phenomenal! This veteran singer not only has a sensational stage presence as described above, but also has a booming voice that doesn't show signs of wear and tear beyond the age-appropriate stage. She is a mature lady, singing the role of a mature lady, and oh boy, she is good!

    Dina Kuznetsova was a bit uneven in the first act, and seemed to need a little time to warm up. By the middle of the Letter Scene, however, she blossomed - I remember what she said in her interview, that one feels pumped up after the Letter Scene. She finished the scene in grand style and earned a very long ovation with shouts of Brava! From that point on, she sustained a high level of quality throughout the opera, and was especially touching in the last scene.

    Dawn Pierce was delightful. Her voice is warm and velvety and she has very good technique with flawless pitch control and breathing, in spite of the fact that she was the most physically active character on stage, running up and down and behaving like a bundle of energy.

    Yeghishe Manucharyan's tenor voice is very beautiful in timbre and he knows how to use it well. His Lensky Aria was heartfelt, and one of the best moments of the evening, also drawing a prolonged ovation. His voice is light and lyrical; one wonders if he's not better suited for the Bel Canto repertoire.

    Vasily Ladyuk did not seem to connect with the public as much as his peers, and drew subdued applause during the opera. However his vocal performance improved as the show went on, and he was particularly strong in his singing in the very last scene, down to the very well delivered last line, Pozor!... Toska!... O zhalki zhrebi moi!.

    John Kaneklides was very good in his singing; one would want to hear him in a longer role. Donald Hartmann was a good Zaretsky, in spite of a couple of problems with the bottom of his range. Charles Lang was less than ideal as the Captain, and Prince Gremin's beautiful aria could have been better delivered by Kristopher Irmiter.

    Overall, Opera Carolina delivered again a world-class performance, maintaining the level of quality observed in Madama Butterfly in January: sets that worked well more often than not; impeccable lighting, costumes, and make-up; nice choreography; good acting especially from the ladies; excellent orchestra, exquisite conducting, and very good singing with a few exceptions. I give this performance a score of A-.

    After the show, I again enjoyed the hospitality of Opera Carolina, with delicious Mediterranean appetizers and the exclusive cocktail "Operatini," while mingling with the cast. Mr. Manucharyan was very friendly backstage and gave me a bear hug, but unfortunately didn't attend the reception so I don't have a personal photo of him.

    Here are some of my pictures of the singers:

    Ms. Kuznetsova

    Ms. Pierce

    Ms. Livengood

    Mr. Ladyuk

    And then, a walk back to the hotel, under in the colorful Charlotte lights.

    Tomorrow, Piedmont Opera and The Crucible. Stay tuned.

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    This article was originally published in forum thread: Eugene Onegin at Opera Carolina started by Almaviva View original post
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Glad you enjoyed the performance!.

      How about the audience, did they also enjoy that much?
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      They did. Full house, standing ovation, lots of Bravi shouts at the end, long curtain calls.
    1. MAuer's Avatar
      MAuer -
      The Queen City? You were in Cincinnati??

      Seriously, this is an amazing review. You've set the bar very high for the rest of us.
    1. Mark Caplan's Avatar
      Mark Caplan -
      Almaviva: "Dawn Pierce was delightful. Her voice is warm and velvety and she has very good technique with flawless pitch control...."

      Steven Brown (Charlotte Observer's classical music critic): "Dawn Pierce is a lively presence as Olga, Lensky’s sweetheart, but singing in tune gets lost in the process."

      Me: I wasn't conscious of Ms Pierce's singing off key, but she was so lovely and captivating a presence on stage, I'm not sure I would have noticed had she veered slightly off pitch. Too bad no recording exists that could resolve who is right, Almaviva or Steven Brown.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Oh well, I was sitting pretty close and paid close attention. I didn't notice any off-key singing. But maybe Mr. Steven Brown reviewed a different performance? The opera was given some four or five evenings.

      Since you seem to agree with me, we're 2 to 1 versus Mr. Brown.

      Actually 3 to 1, because Maestro James Meena told me that he agreed entirely with my review.

      Welcome to Opera Lively!

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