We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


 Takaoki Onishi and Raquel Gonzalez (photo by Richard Termine)
We are thrilled to the bone after another splendid evening at Juilliard, witnessing the gifted young artists of the Juilliard Opera bring new life to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.  It's not as if we have anything against the several traditional productions we have seen; it's just that this chamber reduction allowed us to experience the story and the music in a new way.  Discovering something new is always a treat.

Director Mary Birnbaum has mined the story and found gold.  By focusing on the four young people at its core and emphasizing the psychological aspects, she has revealed the opera's heart; it's a coming of age story.  Each singer has plumbed the depths of his/her character and come up with meaningful and dramatically valid choices.

As Tatiana, soprano Raquel González captured all the vulnerability and recklessness of a girl's first love, having no trouble looking about 16 in pigtails.  In the final two scenes, she demonstrated the poise of a woman who has been married to a Prince for perhaps 6 years and has firmed up her boundaries, so to speak.  Although she is still in love with Onegin, she will not dishonor her husband.  She used a multiplicity of vocal colors as well as posture, gesture and facial expression to convey her maturation.  Her fine instrument and diction served the character and was never used to call attention to itself.

Likewise, Takaoki Onishi's creation of the eponymous Onegin was creative and original.  He avoided the clichés of arrogance but evinced a character that was perhaps 19 years old and full of himself in the opening scene when he meets Tatiana.  He thinks he knows himself--a man who could never love and settle down to domesticity.  He is only as honest with Tatiana as he is with himself; he suffers from the blindness of youth. He is not cruel to her; he seems almost avuncular as he advises her to keep a lid on her passions.  He acts out his boredom with country life by flirting with his friend's sweetheart--provocative in the way a thwarted teenager can be.  When the situation goes too far, he is remorseful but he cannot put a halt to the chain of events he has initiated.  By the end of the opera, he realizes he has ruined his life.  The tumultuous emotions never interfered with Mr. Onishi's luscious baritone sound.

Lensky was so stunningly portrayed by tenor Miles Mykkanen that we wept for his youthful benightedness.  At the beginning he is carefree and madly in love with Olga.  He endures paroxysms of jealousy when Olga responds to Onegin's overtures.  Again, we heard an incredibly wonderful instrument that disappeared into the characterization.  His "Kuda, kuda" was imbued with all the colors of the palette of an artist, which, of course, he is.  We heard doubt, fear, regret and passion.  We suffered along with him.

Mezzo-soprano Avery Amereau has a rich caramel voice and turned in a splendid performance as the light-hearted Olga, the carefree younger sister.  During the orchestral prelude, a pantomime of two little girls had established the warmth of the relationship between the sisters as well as the difference of their characters.  We always wondered what happened to Olga after her fiancé was killed in the duel but Ms. Amereau's characterization led us to believe that she recovered from the shock and went on to lead a rather carefree life post-opera!

Because the opera was presented chamber-style we enjoyed the feeling of intimacy that provided and never missed the huge chorus or ball scene in the last act.  Madame Larina and Nanny Filipyevna were combined into one character, portrayed by the excellent mezzo Samantha Hankey with soprano Marguerite Jones as the maid Anya.  For comic relief there was the foppish Monsieur Triquet, portrayed with fine style by the excellent tenor William Goforth.

Bass Önay Köse had a single aria in the final act which was perfectly sung; he was every inch a Prince Gremin who has achieved favor with the court by virtue of his military success.  One could amazingly hear all this in his voice, as well as his tender feelings for his wife Tatiana who has brought youth and joy to his later years.  Bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman made a fine Captain Zaretsky who was so proud of running a duel according to meticulous standards.  Indeed, there are no small roles!

Musical values were superb.  Youthful conductor Matthew Aucoin surely deserved all the foot-stamping at the end, as much as the singers merited their thunderous applause.  Under his baton and dancing hands, interesting melodic and harmonic elements emerged that generally get lost in a full orchestra in a large house. The reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness for the dozen musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra  worked very well for the small space of the theater.

Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Marcus Institute, said that this work is not meant as a replacement for the full-length work but rather an intimate look at the piece.  That being said, we will never look at the opera in the same old way, not ever.  And given the choice, we would prefer to see this version with its stunning insights.

We wonder how many operas there are that would lend themselves to such a treatment as Ms. Birnbaum provided.  There would seem to be a plethora, as long as there are musicians to do the reduction and gifted singers who can withstand such intimate scrutiny. 

© meche kroop

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