A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Nov 5, 2011
09:42 AM
Classically Speaking

Madison Opera’s “Onegin”: A Lot of Promises, Some Kept

Madison Opera’s “Onegin”: A Lot of Promises, Some Kept

Friday night the curtain went up on the first production of the Kathryn Smith era at Madison Opera, albeit a repertoire choice that was in place well before she had been selected as Alan Naplan’s successor. But Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin created a great deal of anticipation among those who have seen their share of “Butterfly,” “Boheme” and “Rigoletto.” With a number of folks on both sets of the footlights returning who have had notable successes here, and the added debut of Green Bay tenor Scott Ramsay, the event promised to be a memorable one.

And indeed it proved to be, and mostly for good reasons that created positive memories.

Eugene Onegin has only one thing in common with the vast majority of the traditional operatic repertoire — it is a drama where every word is sung. But in lieu of rising body counts, love triangles rife with betrayal or the perils of the “high Cs,” “Onegin” unfolds with between-the-lines stuff. The story is relatively static, and ends with the operatic equivalent of a whimper, not a bang.

But I was dying to see it and hear it for only the second time in my opera-going life, in large part because three of the principals had already given 14,000+ Opera in the Park patrons a major preview last July. The music is flat-out gorgeous start to finish, and with John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra stirring the instrumental juices, Tchaikovsky throbbed and sobbed.

The accolade of “spectacular” singing went to baritone Hyung Yun in the title role; with a voice equally rich in any register and every dynamic level, the large (sold out?) Overture Hall crowd was in his corner from his first appearance.

The object of his affection, Tatiana, was brought to life by another local favorite, Maria Kanyova. In her famous “Letter Scene” it was DeMain and the MSO that initially drove the tension and inner drama, but before she was done, Kanyova completed a convincing portrayal of the wildly impulsive, incessantly second-guessing passions of a 17-year old.

The aforementioned Ramsay took the part of the ill-fated Lenski; his first big moment (with Jamie Van Eyck as a capable and winning Olga) found him slightly tentative in the upper range. By the end of Act I, and in his big aria just before the duel with Onegin, Ramsay delivered solid evidence of his growing reputation.

The sets of Scenic Designer Neil Patel were mostly effective; the country estate dominated by austere, semi-abstract birches that turned bleak for the duel scene. The most striking visual was the minimalist bedroom of Tatiana; set to one side of the stage, the bed, chair and small table and bookcase were starkly lit and all but swallowed by an abyss-like blackness everywhere else.

But the major miscalculation, and exacerbated to a degree by director Candace Evans, was the party scene at the end of Act I. While this is the rustic country crowd, they are still supposed to be waltzing to the famous “Waltz” often heard orchestrally. Worse still, the whole party seemed almost pushed to the front of the stage, with a great deal of presumably open space left unused.

Similarly, the Act II ball, while suitably glamorous via the costumes of Susan Memmott Allred, initially wasted a minute or so of the equally celebrated “Polonaise” with Onegin being transformed by his dressers from duel outfit to party togs. The first partiers we see are three pairs of classical ballet dancers … it all made for a briefly frustrating incongruity.

Elsewhere Evans did a balanced and nuanced job, especially with the principals. In a work that tends to be introverted, too much busy-ness—and certainly histrionics—are thoroughly out of place. Yun and Kanyova—and many of the supporting roles—produced nicely nuanced portrayals under Evans’ direction.

If it sounds like something of a mixed bag, it was — save for the ultimate barometer in opera: If it sings and the music is fresh and alive, it was a good night, and on that score, this Onegin was a very good night indeed. I grew up twenty miles from the Metropolitan Opera, and spent twenty years in and around Los Angeles, and I’d only managed to see Onegin once. If this is your first chance, grab it tomorrow afternoon.

For tickets, call the Overture Center box office at 258-4141 or go to madisonopera.org.

Photo courtesy of Madison Opera.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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