The challenge met by Tchaikovsky, Russia's great 19th-century composer, was to take a celebrated novel of doomed love by Alexander Pushkin and set it to some of the most spellbinding music ever written. The challenge for Palo Alto's West Bay Opera is to make that masterpiece, "Yevgeny Onegin," relevant to today's audiences.
In accepting that task, West Bay Opera Maestro Jose Luis Moscovich has teamed up with an imaginative director, Ragnar Conde, along with a seasoned cast, to bring it to the stage of the Lucie Stern Theater for four performances (Feb. 19-28).
"I am delighted to continue working with West Bay Opera because of the total quality of the casts and the great voices they bring. It is also a company which is willing to explore new ideas that make opera a truly living art," Conde said.
Last year Conde and West Bay produced an acclaimed "Faust," in which a Silicon Valley scientist searched for the secret of eternal life. A native of Mexico City, Conde was trained at the Casa del Teatro there and has gone on to direct more than 70 performing-arts projects throughout the western hemisphere and Europe.
In his version of "Yevgeny Onegin," sung in Russian with English supertitles, the story is recounted from the perspective of an old man looking back. Each of its seven scenes will be framed with projections of Russian tableau paintings of the era.
"Although the mid-19th century is the setting, there is a relevance for the Russian culture of today in capturing Pushkin's ironic commentary on society's class system and today's behavior and psychology," Conde said.
The opera is constructed of seven vignettes from the lengthy Pushkin novel. The story is a cautionary tale about suppressing one's feelings behind a mask of upper-class sophistication, and the contrasts between high society of czarist St. Petersburg and the simpler lives of country folk.
The libretto, by Konstantin Shilovsky, tells the tale of Tatyana, a sensitive adolescent girl who falls in love with Onegin, a cold and selfish man of the world. She declares her passion in a long letter but he utterly rejects her love. Later, at her birthday ball, he flirts with her sister Olga, which brings a challenge to a duel from Lenski, Onegin's friend and Olga's suitor. Lenski is killed and Onegin leaves to travel abroad aimlessly.
Six years later, he returns to Russia and finds Tatyana has matured into a beautiful woman, married to to the elderly Prince Gremin. Ongen falls in love and implores her to leave with him. When she admits she still loves him but is unwilling to leave her husband, Onegin is left crushed and in total despair.
"Actions do have consequences, as Onegin bitterly learns," Conde said.
The musical score has an abundance of lush, complex melodies that advance the narrative. Tchaikovsky created a group of tunes that evoke the social backgrounds of the characters in both folk song and dance along with a great polonaise.
Anders Froehlich, an American baritone, sings the title role. He has sung with San Francisco Opera, Opera San Jose and Los Angeles Opera as well as in some cutting-edge new works. This will be his West Bay Opera debut.
The pivotal role of Tatyana will be sung by a Russian-trained soprano, Olga Chernisheva, who recently starred in "Tosca" at Opera San Jose. Her "Yevgeny Onegin" highlight is the 23-minute "Letter Scene," one of the most demanding in the entire repertory.
Tenor Jorge Garza takes the role of Lenski, who sings a memorable aria just before the duel; Nikola Printz sings the mezzo soprano role of Olga in her debut with the company; and Anna Yelizarova, another mezzo, will sing Larina, the mother of Tatyana and Olga. She sang Maddalena in West Bay's "Rigoletto" earlier this season.
Despite the small stage, there will be specially choreographed works for dancers, and the West Bay Opera orchestra, conducted by Maestro Moscovich, will be playing virtually all of the original score in this production.
What: West Bay Opera presents Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin," sung in Russian with English supertitles.
When: Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 at 8 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m.
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Info: Visit West Bay opera or call 650-424-9999.