Opera review: 'Yevgeny Onegin'

West Bay Opera combines passionate drama with lush melodies

Audiences at the sold-out Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto last weekend were treated to stunning performances that bring together outstanding voices, imaginative choreography and clever space-enhancing video projections with the gorgeously rich orchestral score by Russia's great composer Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky. Two remaining performances are scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28.

In tackling "Yevgeny Onegin" (also known by its English name, "Eugene Onegin") for the second time in its 60-year history, West Bay Opera's General Director Jose Luis Moscovich brought in a creative team headed by a thoughtful young stage director, Ragnar Conde. He uses the device of a set of flashbacks as an aged Onegin looks backs on seven vignettes of his earlier life. A staging concept using technically superb screen projections successfully frames the wide range of settings from a simple early 19th-century country house to a prince's lavish St. Petersburg ball room.

Based on a long-verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, the titular Onegin is a self-centered, impulsive upper-class Russian bored at a friend's countryside home, next to the home of an adolescent girl, Tatyana. He toys with her and she falls desperately in love with him. Onegin rejects her. Six years later she has matured into the self-possessed, sophisticated wife of a rich, elderly prince who loves her deeply. Onegin, fresh from several years of wandering aimlessly, arrives at a ball in the prince's home, is astonished by Tatyana and importunes her to run away with him. Although she still loves Onegin, she is loyal to her husband. Onegin is crushed to total despair by the rejection.

From this simple plot, Tchaikovsky and his librettist, Konstantin Shilovsky, fashioned the "seven lyric scenes" propelled by some of the most evocative music in all of opera.

Olga Chernisheva convincingly portrays Tatyana as the conflicted youngster who turns into a mature, confident woman. Her buttery soprano vocalism has warmth and sensitivity. This was especially true in the long, demanding "letter scene."

Onegin is sung by baritone Anders Froehlich. His strong voice captures the range of moods from the supercilious and petulant to his puzzlement at his ultimate fate.

Dramatic tenor Jorge Garza is outstanding as Lensky, who's killed in a duel after Onegin impulsively taunts him by flirting with Lensky's bride to be, Tatyana's sister, Olga. That role is capably sung by mezzo soprano Nikola Printz, in her WBO debut.

Silas Elash, a veteran Opera San Jose bass, makes his debut as the kindly Prince Gremin. He brought some of the loudest applause of the day with his richly melodic song proclaiming his love for Tatyana.

This production features dancers from the Mark Foehringer Dance Collective. The versatile 24 chorus members portray serfs, townspeople and courtiers. They also take on static roles as characters in 19th-century Russian genre paintings.

Maestro Moscovich conducts his orchestra through the complexity of the score, which at times is fully symphonic and then almost akin to that of a chamber ensemble. The small size of Lucie Stern, compared to most other opera venues, works to the advantage of this production because in sum, "Yevgeny Onegin" is an opera that is itself intimate and conversational, albeit periodically bursting with passionate dramatic moments.

What: West Bay Opera presents Tchaikovsky's "Yevgeny Onegin," sung in Russian with English supertitles.

When: Saturday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $45-$83

Info: Visit West Bay Opera or call 650-424-9999

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