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From Russia, with Unrequited Love

Academy of Vocal Arts
01/15/2013 -  & January 22, 2013
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, Op. 24
Chloe Moore (Tatyana), Chrystal E. Williams (Olga), Margaret Mezzacappa (Filippyevna), Wes Mason (Eugene Onegin), Diego Silva (Lensky), Musa Ngqungwana (Zaretsky), Patrick Guetti (Prince Gremin), Stephen Barchi (Captain), Dominick Chenes (Guillo)
Ghenady Meirson (conductor pianist)
Mark Verzatt (direction), Val Starr (costunes), AVA (sets)

A. Schenck & M. Mezzacappa (Courtesy of AVA)

One of the most anticipated evenings at Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia is their Russian Romances recitals that not only showcase AVA’s 25 resident singers, but is a deep field survey of classical and folkloric music from Russia. The programming is designed by AVA pianist and all around Russian specialist Ghenady Meirson. The Russian repertoire has proved so popular that Meirson has been producing many more Russian operas at AVA. This year he plans Rachmaninoff’s and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s operas and he started this month with an intoxicating production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Audiences are used to hearing this played with full orchestra, but Meirson alone played the entire score on the piano and in the overture this seemed like an instant deficit. And, there was unavoidable brittleness Meirson has to fill in what was meant for dense orchestras, so has to lean on pianistic vamping but mostly he was able to show the musical steel, as well as Tchaikovsky’s DNA, in this work.

Also very spare are AVA’s scaled designs and sets; just screen panels upstage to suggest a country estate garden, a divan and a few bits of wood furniture. Opulence came in with Val Starr's costume designs, period detail in the men’s cutaways and uniforms, Imperial court couture gowns on the women. Mostly this production was all about the music and as soon as the voices come in, the alchemy was all there.

Eugene Onegin is Pushkin’s melodramatic class story around young unrequited love and the machinations of lovers and cads. Madame Larina’s daughters, the shy Tatyana and vivacious Olga, are considering suitors as they have tea with their nanny. When Lensky and his friend Onegin visit, sparks fly. Lensky is immediately smitten by Olga and Tatyana is gaga over Onegin. Later she wants to hear love stories from Filippievna, her nanny and confidant and she gets carried away with romance and writes a passionate love letter to Onegin. Only to be faced with his condescending response (“I love you like a sister”). His indifference and coldness crushes her.

Later, at the ball, Onegin steals dances with the flirty Olga and Lensky flies into a jealous rage, then challenges him to a duel. Lensky is the loser and Onegin flees. Years later, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg society and he attends Prince Gremin’s ball and is introduced to Tatyana, who is now Gremin’s wife. She is not the unsteady lass he snubbed, but a self-assured, beautiful lady of position. He throws himself at her feet at this transformation and even though she confesses her love, she refuses him.

Lyric soprano Chloe Moore was not scheduled to sing the opening night, but stepped in for another soprano who was down with the flu. And Moore did so admirably. She might pull back some over-wroughtness in her acting, but, vocally she was silvery and volcanic. Chrystal Williams’ mezzo is perfectly suited to Olga’s knowing exuberance and Williams shows what a consummate singing-actor she is. Margaret Mezzacappa as nanny has such mezzo suppleness and her character detailing is first rate. Patrick Guetti has a sonic basso and it kept giving, even with some erratic pacing during his love lecture to Onegin.

AVA has had many break-out stars in their productions and Diego Silva joined that rank as the passionate Lensky. He could strengthen his Russian diction, but his lyrical line and dramatic presence in this part is stellar. He also had great vocal chemistry with both Williams and Wes Mason, who had such ease and line refinement as Onegin. Marc Verzatt’s unfussy direction focus on ensemble sharpness. Nice editorial touches in things like those floaty, but goofy ballroom dances. But, singers, a little musicality in your steps, please.

Lewis Whittington



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