Review: Lesenger stages ‘artistic’ farewell ‘Onegin’

Guest Critic: Andrew Druckenbrod

How people take leave of a job says a great deal about them. This summer marks the last for Jay Lesenger as Chautauqua Opera’s general and artistic director.

He could have turned the season into one long gala concert to honor himself by programming warhorses: La traviata, Carmen, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville. How about La bohème, Fidelio or Pagliacci?

Instead, Lesenger chose the artistic way out — not the easy — staging Verdi’s Macbeth and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the latter opening Friday night at Norton Hall. While both are in the standard rep, they are hardly surefire sellout works. It’s not only a sign of a director with conviction, but it respects the wishes of the Norton family, who called for “adroit choice of repertoire.” Unfortunately, Lesenger had to abide by that other requirement, that all performances should be given in English. But more on that later.

Primarily a period production, Lesenger, as stage director, and set designer Ron Kadri wove an intriguing interpretive element of a country wood into the scenery. Dominating the production at first, it was pushed further and further out of view as the opera progressed. It first appears as the setting for the tender opening scene when Tatyana (Elizabeth Baldwin) meets Onegin (Matthew Worth) and her sister Olga (Clara Nieman) sees her fiancé Lenski (John Riesen). The wood is then seen from a window of Tatyana’s bedroom, in the far background of the ballroom in Madame Larina’s house (the mother of the girls and sung by Rachel Arky) and ultimately not at all in the action in the stately home of Prince Gremin (Richard Bernstein). To me, this signified the fading away of the innocence of Tatyana, who moves from a girl enthralled with romance novels to someone level-headed enough to choose family life over living out a melodramatic love affair herself.

The Chautauqua Opera Young Artists in the cast availed themselves well, especially the reserved vocals of Arky, and the passionate, surging utterances by Riesen and the ensemble of the chorus (prepared by Carol Rausch). Chelsea Bolter (Filipyevna) and Peter Lake (Monsieur Triquet) embodied their roles well.

But the professionals, albeit judged on a higher standard, were uneven. Baldwin’s Tatyana was spoiled and petulant — not at all a character you felt for when she gets spurned by Onegin. Her voice had admirable pathos in the lower register, but occasionally broke in transition and never quite opened in the part’s higher tessitura. Worth sang with a gorgeous oaken timbre, but his acting was also wooden. He captured the haughtiness of the egotistical, Mr. Darcy-like character. But he did not transform when the character mourns his killing of Lenski and when he does a 180 in the last act and falls desperately in love with Tatyana.

It is hard to find a bass who won’t jump at the role of Gremin, and Bernstein showed why with a stout and estimable performance of “Lyubvi vse vozrasti pokorni.” The only problem is that the audience didn’t hear that, but rather a poor English translation that included the couplet: “Onegin, why should I conceal it/I am so in love I must reveal it.” While some librettos fare well enough in English translation, Russian ones tend not to, and this one hurt the integrity of the production. At a time that the Chautauquan community is debating the future of the Amphitheater, could it not also address the policy of English-only opera performances?

Peter Leonard guided the orchestra to a warm rendering of the score, with the oboe and horns delivering an exquisite accompaniment to Baldwin in the famous Letter Scene. The choreography throughout was fluid, but the sassy demeanor of the dancing peasants acting out the folk tale/song in the first scene was especially enjoyable.

Andrew Druckenbrod is a lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Pittsburgh and the former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.