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Review: Singers triumph in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Onegin'

| Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

The G-20 summit unintentionally cast extra light on the Saturday night opening of Pittsburgh Opera's season because other Cultural District events were cancelled or rescheduled. The opera's presentation of "Eugene Onegin" was up to the challenge, for the most part, because it was an impressively sung performance of a gorgeous, yet neglected, opera that was limited mostly by uninspiring sets.

From the moment soprano Anna Samuil began singing, the performance hit its groove. She was a wonderful Tatiana, and her excellence was not isolated. She was quickly joined in the opening ensemble by the worthy Lindsay Ammann as her sister, Olga. Ammann's performance, including her own aria, was especially impressive because she is a first-year resident artist of Pittsburgh Opera.

Strength went to strength as the other women on stage -- Susanne Mentzer as the girls' mother, Madame Larina, and Sustan Toth Shafer as nurse, Filipyevna -- also were well-matched and individually compelling. Thus the opening ensemble, in duos and quartets, was thoroughly enchanting.

Opposites attract, and not, when poet Vladimir Lensky and his friend, Eugene Onegin, call on the Larin family. The scale of Raymond Very's tenor suited Lensky. He conveyed not only his character's sincere love for the extroverted Olga but also how much he loves being a poet. Tatiana is smitten with Onegin.

In the next scene, late at night in Tatiana's bedroom, Samuil offered a brilliant, dramatically fluent performance of the Letter Scene, in which she professes her love to Onegin. Samuil's mixture of vocal acting and body language was complete, while her vocal line was so clear and clean it was breathtaking. She fully conveyed the distance Tatiana travels to overcome fear and find the excitement of romantic feelings in her own words and life, not a book's.

Dwayne Croft was outstanding as Onegin. In the final scene of Act I, he brought just the right cold dignity to his role's best and worst moment. It's true, as he sings, that he would be a bad husband, but he breaks Tatiana's heart.

Sam Helfrich directed a very well acted performance. But there were odd moments in the duel scene in Act II, which is prompted by Lensky's jealousy after Onegin flirts with Olga. In Helfrich's staging, Onegin doesn't look as he fires the fatal shot. Of course, this conveys Onegin's ambivalence about shooting his friend, but he's much too selfish a creature to take a chance when his own life is at stake.

The opera concludes three years later when Tatiana is married to Prince Gremin. Samuil and Croft achieved great intensity in their final scene, in which Onegin belatedly realizes he loves Tatiana and begs her to leave her husband. Samuil's triumph in the role was completed in this scene, in which she was not a tower of strength but rather was strong in the face of real temptation. The curtain falls with Onegin as crushed as Tatiana had been in Act I.

Music director Antony Walker led an energetic performance with considerably lyrical sensitivity. The orchestra played well for a first performance of music the opera hasn't performed since 1991. The chorus was fabulously spirited and well balanced.

Finally, about those sets. The most ridiculous items were cutout birch trees and berry bushes in Act I. The paint on the panels that were supposed to represent the bushes was so faded you could hardly make out what they were supposed to be, let alone believe they'd bear fruit. The columns at a St. Petersburg Palace in the last act were so wide and shallow they were nearly cutouts. The lighting was not impressive.

Yet, Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Eugene Onegin" is not to be missed, because issues with the sets fade quickly in the presence of great singing.

Additional Information:

'Eugene Onegin'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Opera

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10.50-$140.50

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666

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