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Tchaikovsky in Luxury

Kennedy Center Concert Hall
06/12/2008 -  and June 14, 16
Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Sergei Leiferkus (Eugene Onegin), Irina Mataeva (Tatiana), Daniil Shtoda (Vladimir Lensky), Irina Tchistiakova (Madame Larina), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga), Mzia Nioradze (Filipyevna), Gustav Andreassen (Prince Gremin), Nathan Herfindahl (Captain), Grigory Soloviov (Zaretsky), Robert Baker (Monsieur Triquet)
The Washington Chorus, Julian Wachner(Music Director Designate), National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (Music Director)

Leonard Slatkin (© National Symphony Orchestra)

When one of the world’s most beloved opera scores is given an ideal cast, is played by one of America’s finest orchestras under the baton of one of the world’s greatest conductors, as it was last night, the result is nothing short of magic and fireworks. What a joy it was to hear Tschaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin given such lavish treatment. It was pure unadulterated luxury!

Heading the excellent cast was the internationally renowned baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who gave an unforgettable performance as the jaded and world-weary Onegin. His voice poured forth a fountain of colors and shades as he weighted each phrase with well-considered inflections and insinuations. His one big aria was beautifully sung and capped with an exquisitely floated high note at the very end. The role of Eugene Onegin is often a hard nut to crack in creating a character of any sympathy with the audience. Mr. Leiferkus obviously brought a lifetime’s experience with the role to bear on his characterization, and he won the sympathy of the audience in his final rejection by Tatiana.

It certainly would be difficult to imagine two more beautiful women with lovelier voices that mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk and soprano Irina Mataeva as the sisters Olga and Tatiana. They were completely believable in their roles, both physically and vocally. Miss Semechuk’s voice is pure dark chocolate; it is rich and velvety from top to bottom. She is also an extraordinarily fine actress. From her first entrance she exhibited the gay and carefree Olga, one who was very much in love with the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Olga does not appear again in the opera after the confrontation scene that concludes Act II, scene I, in which Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel for flirting with her. Yet she poignantly conveyed to the audience, upon her exit, her complete comprehension of the impending doom and tragedy that awaits Lensky, and the guilty remorse she feels for being the cause of it. Ms. Mataeva, on the other hand, was the perfect foil to her sister Olga. She radiated youth, shyness, awkwardness, passion, and the inexperience of a county girl living on the farm who has a teenage infatuation with a man she has just met. Her rendition of the famous Letter Scene was sung as well as I ever heard it done. Her voice has an exceptionally beautiful timbre that is always enticing to the ear. She has a beautiful piano voice and a full and penetrating forte voice, both of which she employed to great effect in the Letter Scene. Her final duet with Mr. Leiferkus was thrilling in its display of vocal passion and dramatic intensity.

Tenor Daniil Shtoda has the ideal voice for Lensky. He is right in line with the classic examples of Koslovsky and Lemeshev. I would have wished for more head voice in the piano sections of his aria but his singing was most affecting nonetheless. Mr. Shtoda was very moving in his singing of the famous aria “Kuda vy uda lilis”, for which the audience immediately rewarded him with a strong round of applause. The duel, which can be awkward dramatically in a concert setting, was delivered offstage in the manner of a Greek tragedy and worked perfectly.

Washington’s own Robert “Bobby” Baker (as he is affectionately known) was a superb Triquet, exhibiting a finer quality of voice and a patrician style of singing rarely encountered in this type of comprimario role. His alternation of piano/forte dynamics in repeated phrases was impressive, as was also his characterization.

The role of Tatiana’s husband Prince Gremin must be a real plum for basses. They need only appear briefly in the final act, sing one of the finest arias in the opera, collect their paycheck, and go home. Unfortunately, as Tschaikovsky has written it, the directors can get away with nothing short of engaging a stellar bass. This is exactly what the NSO had in the artistry of Norwegian-American bass Gustav Andreassen. His voice is gorgeous and deep. He walked onstage, conquered with his powerful singing, received an ovation, and walked offstage. It could not have been simpler. It could not have been better.

All of the roles, in fact, were filled by voices of the finest caliber. Basses Nathan Herfindahl as the Captain and Grigory Soloviev as Zaretsky were both vocally impressive in their brief but notable appearances. This was also true of mezzo Irina Tchistjakova as Madame Larina, whose plumy, luscious sound was especially effective in the quartet that opens Act I. It was indeed an evening of luxury casting. Nothing, however, was as luxurious as the casting of Georgian mezzo Mzia Nioradze as Filipyevna. My jaw dropped to the floor when she started singing. Her voice is divine, as is her stage presence. How in heaven’s name can this singer, who is an internationally famous Carmen, Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Laura, Marina, Konchakova, etcetera, etcetera, with credits ranging from the NY Metropolitan Opera to St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky be cast as Tatiana’s nanny??? What an indulgence. Filipyevna is usually cast with a crackly- voiced, character contralto. Every meager line Ms. Nioradze sang was of extraordinary beauty. I hope the NSO will have her return in something major, like Verdi’s Requiem.

The real stars of the show were undoubtedly Maestro Slatkin and the fabulous National Symphony. Who needs a stage director with Leonard Slatkin at the bow? He elicited every ounce of drama and poetry from this great score and orchestra played with unfailing energy and panache. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up all evening. The participation of the excellent Washington Chorus was an added bonus. They sang with a refinement and sound not possible with most opera house choruses.
The rousing rendition of the famous waltz, which opens Act II, was particularly dazzling in the orchestral playing and choral singing. Maestro Slatkin obviously loves this work enormously and he brought all of his musical and interpretive skills to bear on this performance. Maestro Slatkin has had a great influence on the musical life of this city for many years now. He will soon be leaving and will be greatly missed. However, his legacy of performances, like this one, will long be remembered.

Micaele Sparacino



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