We got even more than we expected last night when the Russian Opera Society and Spotlight Artist Management presented a night of mostly Russian music. Following a warm welcome from Natalie Burlutskaya, Tchaikovsky's masterpiece Eugene Onegin--with a libretto adapted from Pushkin's verse novel--took us to another time and place, one in which morals and social expectations were completely different from our own--an era of courtship, advantageous marriage, loyalty, and dutiful self-sacrifice.
To convey all that in a fully costumed lengthy opera with scenery and orchestra is to be expected, but to achieve all that in a one-hour piano reduction with only the highlights presented is nothing short of miraculous. This miracle rested on the shoulders of some excellent artists, including pianist Alexander Chaplinsky who likely made his own reduction of the score, allowing all the instrumental lines to be heard and all of Tchaikovsky's emotional content to be felt. The piano became a condensed orchestra.
Zoya Gramagin has the Russian soul and ease with the language to allow her to focus totally on dramatic interpretation. Her lush soprano was perfect for the role. Like Violetta in La Traviata, her character has to experience growth from the beginning of the opera to the end. After a deeply felt introduction on the piano which introduced the themes, Ms. Gramagin showed us a shy and introverted country girl who contrasted well with mezzo-soprano Vita Koreneva's ebullient and flirtatious Olga. Their duet was stunning in its harmonies and the difference in the two sisters' personalities was made clear in the music.
In Olga's ariosa Ms. Koreneva painted a picture of the flighty younger sister. The centerpiece of the evening was Tatiana's "Letter Scene" in which she demonstrated a panoply of emotions, taking us right back to our youth. Oh, the agony of first love! The anxiety, the desperation, the hopefulness--all there and going right to our heart. We have heard this scene often in competitions but rarely have we heard it performed this poignantly.
We have strong feelings about Onegin that may not be shared by everyone. We do not see him as shallow and careless of Tatiana's feelings. He is only 26 and is trying to be a "Dutch Uncle" to a 13-year-old girl who is infatuated with him. If he were a "bad dude" he could have taken advantage of her but he didn't. He is just immature and not a good sport about visiting in the provinces. Baritone Daniel Scofield did a fine job of illuminating the sophisticated youth with a disdain for the provincial.
In the final scene of the opera he is bereft at finding this child all grown up (at 17 years of age!), sophisticated and alluring, but wed and unavailable. The change of her hairstyle and the addition of a fur cape were not even necessary; Tatiana's maturation was present in the voice and gesture. Ms. Gramagin's fine acting let us see the conflict between love and duty tearing her apart. But, being a loyal young woman, she must reject him, even whilst admitting her love.
We were moved by her growth which could only be conveyed in such a brief period of time and in such an episodic nature by a major talent. That is our opinion of Ms. Gramagin! We felt empathy for both characters and the sense of loss. No happy Hollywood ending and no operatic suicide. Just ineffable sadness.
The continuity was broken by the insertion of Lensky's aria which, in the context of the opera, is instrumental to the story. Somehow in this very abbreviated version, it interrupted the flow of Tatiana's character development. Lucas Levy's Lensky needed more variety of emotion and dynamics. Mr. Levy's delivery was forceful and missing the bewilderment a 17-year-old might feel when he has acted rashly and gotten himself in over his head. In spite of a beautiful decrescendo at the end, we were not moved. We were already uninvolved.
After the intermission, we were treated to some fine piano solos by Mr. Chaplinsky and some upbeat music by an interesting duo called Musalliance, comprising Anna Kusner playing the guitar, supporting the treble line performed on the domra by the impish Peter Omelchenko. The domra is an interesting string instrument that sounds at time like a mandolin and at other times like a balalaika. Mr. Omelchenko is fleet with his fingering and made old standards sound completely new. We particularly enjoyed Schubert's "Ave Maria" and Rimsky Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee", as well as some Neapolitan songs. Ms. Kusner excelled in Agustín Lara's "Granada" in which she took the lead. We noticed some finely wrought rasqueados. The audience went wild.
It was a lovely evening brought to a fine finale by the entire cast singing the "Carol of the Bells", each artist taking a phrase in succession.
© meche kroop