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OPERA REVIEW : Intimacy Without Passion in San Diego's 'Onegin'

January 27, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — Lurid ads are popular with opera companies these days. Impresarios everywhere--well, almost everywhere--have decided that Hollywood hype is useful when it comes to selling the lyric muse to the unwashed masses.

The blurb for "Yevgeny Onegin," which opened the belated San Diego Opera season on Saturday, was interesting.

"From Russia With Love," it blared, "and Betrayal and Jealousy and Death."

Socko. Wacko.

Unfortunately, as a perverse fate would have it, there was more passion in the pitch than in the performance. Hardly anyone at the Civic Theatre seemed to get very excited about the inherent emotional traumas.

The problems began in the rather scraggly pit, where Kenneth Montgomery, the Irish conductor from Amsterdam, seemed intent on evading storms at all cost. He obviously valued grace and sentiment, and he wasn't afraid to slow things down nearly to the stalling point whenever maximum introspection loomed. But he did little to accommodate, much less propel, the seething, throbbing, thrashing pathos with which Tchaikovsky delineated Pushkin's drama.

This might not have mattered too much if the stage had been populated with a cast of singing-actors who could muster turbulence on their own. But Ian Campbell had assembled a rather placid crew for this revival of the Canadian production first seen here in 1985. Compounding the expressive alienation, he had the mostly Anglo-Saxon cast dutifully mouth phonetic Russian while the audience dutifully followed a translation screened atop the proscenium.

"Onegin" had been a gripping theatrical experience eight years ago. Now it was just a nice concert with pretty costumes.

One artist managed to suggest what might have been. Hans Peter Blochwitz offered a sensitively detailed, overwhelmingly poignant portrait of the poet Lenski.

Courtly, bookish and eminently vulnerable, the German tenor looked pretty much like the impetuous 19-year-old described in the libretto, and he sang the reflective passages with bel-canto tones worthy of Mozart. It will be difficult to forget the choked pianissimo phrases with which he launched the great second-act ensemble, or the stunned resignation with which he defined his farewell to life in "Kuda, vi udalilis."

Nature did not endow Blochwitz with much thunder for the heroic outbursts. He refused to force for impact, however, and thus managed to make a dramatic virtue of vocal frailty. One could believe his desperation as well as his ardor.

Jeffrey Black was undertaking the title role for the first time. The hulking Australian baritone sang very well when the line didn't rise above his comfort level, and he made a conscientious effort to convey the drastic change in Onegin's character after the fatal duel with Lenski. He succumbed to exaggeration, however, making the St. Petersburg dandy an insufferable prig in the early scenes (how could Tatiana love this man?) and a slobbering fool in the later episodes.

*

Renee Fleming, one of the few bright prospects in the new generation of spinto sopranos, sang Tatiana's music with radiant tone, ample thrust and, in the last act, exquisite shading. But she did little to suggest the heroine's romantic torture, or to differentiate adolescent longing from mature renunciation. In other words, she couldn't compete with memories of Kathryn Bouleyn (a.k.a Kathryn Day), who left her unique imprint on the role in 1985.

Kathleen Hegierski, more a mezzo-soprano than the contralto required by the composer, returned as a properly pretty, properly flighty Olga. Stefan Szkafarowsky conveyed little noble dignity in Prince Gremin's wonderful aria, but his rough-edged basso coped impressively with the range extremes. Douglas Perry waved a Pavarotti hankie (it's time to lay that easy cliche to rest) as an all-too prissy Triquet; at least he avoided caricature in his singing of the old pedant's sad little aria. The maternal duties were pleasantly dispatched by Martha Jane Howe (Mme. Larina) and Debria Brown (Filipievna).

John Copley's well-focused staging scheme, devised for Festival Ottawa in 1983, remains a model of narrative intimacy. The same can be said for Robin Don's lightly stylized sets--up to but not including the tacky St. Petersburg palace. The visual illusions were compromised by a series of lighting mishaps on this occasion, and Terry Gilbert's mock-Russian choreography looked better in Larina's country than in Gremin's city.

Francis Rizzo's supertitles actually respected and reflected the stresses of the Russian text. Still, "Onegin" in English would have made better sense on both sides of the proscenium.

* The San Diego Opera production of "Yevgeny Onegin" continues Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C Street, San Diego. $18-$65. (619) 232-7636.

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