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Florida Grand Opera's 'Eugene Onegin' is crying out for intimacy

FloridaTheaterOnStage.com

This may be heresy, but maybe grand opera shouldn’t always be so grand. Florida Grand Opera’s current production of Tchaikovsky’s romantic tragedy “Eugene Onegin” reportedly has a more intimate feel than many predecessors. But that only points the way to an idea that might make this classic even more affecting.

The rather simple plot about doomed romances among the social elite in 19th century Russia concerns the tempest of emotions raging inside the principals. While bravura belting bouncing off the back balcony is one way to represent such passions, imagine the impact if it were performed in a smaller venue, in the theatrical equivalent of cinematic closeups where much could be accomplished with acting rather than lung power.

FGO’s production was undeniably well-sung on opening night, reasonably well-acted for opera and skillfully staged. The orchestra sounded a bit muted, but deftly did justice to what some aficionados contend is the master’s finest serious work.

As usual, the party and ball scenes were lush, expansive affairs that made use of the company’s large cast of supernumeraries in the chorus. Similarly, an epic scope was furthered by the sets based around tall birch-tree trunks (rented from Opera Carolina) and the moody lighting.

But on opening night, the strongest aspects of the production were the vocal performances (the leads are double cast): Russian soprano Dina Kuznetsova making her local debut as the dewy naif Tatyana but her fourth run at the part; tenor Chad Johnson as the ridiculously jealous poet Lensky; and baritone Franco Pomponi, who reprises a role deep in his repertoire as the impossibly handsome and impossibly unfeeling title character.

The story, drawn faithfully from Alexander Pushkin’s wildly popular novel in verse (a pop icon in Russia akin to “Gone With the Wind”), is simple. Wealthy country lass Tatyana, all of 16, falls madly in love at first sight (and we mean at first sight) with the neighboring brooding playboy Eugene, whose best friend, Lensky, is affianced to Tatyana’s older sister Olga (played by Courtney Miller).

Eugene is a self-centered jerk who has no interest in any serious entanglement. So when Tatyana writes him a lengthy, outsize declaration of love, he coldly shuts her down. She is crushed.

Perhaps trying to dodge Tatyana or reinforce his independence, he dances with Olga repeatedly at a ball. Lensky gets overly offended, fights with Eugene, and challenges him to a duel, which he loses. Eugene goes on a worldwide road trip for a few years. When he returns, he finds a mature, refined and downright gorgeous Tatyana married to a distant relative, Prince Gremin.

Eugene is now insanely and instantly smitten with Tatyana, falling to her feet overcome with emotion. She admits she still loves him, but she refuses to leave Gremin. Smart lady. Eugene is left onstage on his knees a shattered man. At least for a few days, you can assume.

Kuznetsova may not play a convincing teenager, but her swanlike transformation into a young lady is completely credible. Her rapturous voice is lovely and supple, making a triumph of the opera’s most famous scene, in which Tatyana has an 18-minute aria as she composes her love letter to Eugene. It is a tour de force that earned some of the most sustained applause heard in recent seasons.

The smolderingly hot Pomponi, who looks like a cross between Eric McCormack of “Will and Grace” and George Maharis of “Route 66,” exudes the confidence of someone who knows a role inside and out. His Eugene is aloof from people and life. When bad things happen, he is certain they are not his fault. It’s a testament to Pomponi’s acting that the audience believes it when Eugene is reduced to such anguish in the final scene. His strong, controlled baritone can be chilly in the first two acts and impassioned in the third.

A nod is due Jeffrey Marc Buchman, who has staged the action — in concert with the lighting by Helena Kuukka — to clearly underscore relationships, such as putting Eugene off to himself in group scenes like the outsider he is. When Gremin sings a second unnecessary reprise of his paean to love, Buchman has Eugene and Tatyana, surprised to have discovered each other in this setting, slowly move toward each other as if the rest of the world has vanished.

Acclaimed Russian conductor Alexander Polianichko has carefully guided these vocal performances in his first visit to FGO, and he obviously knows this piece beloved in his homeland. The FGO orchestra has returned the favor with a technically fine rendition. But the bright, shimmering sound that you associate with other Tchaikovsky works is pointedly missing.

In fact, despite all the histrionics and a gunshot, the whole evening has a slight, lackluster tone. But if this was done in a smaller venue, where we could concentrate on the people rather than the spectacle, it might land more effectively.

In opera, certainly in this piece, the audience is simply supposed to savor the heartfelt music, not fault the sluggish dramaturgy. But this pretty simple journey takes a long three hours. It would be more effective if you were close to the singers and able to get lost in the emotional maelstrom as well as the music.

Florida Grand Opera performs “Eugene Onegin” 8 p.m. Jan. 31, Feb. 3 and 4 at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets cost $12-$175. The opera also will be performed 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and Feb. 11 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $21-$200. Call 800-741-1010 or go to FGO.org.

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