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Tchaikovsky's 'Onegin' reigns at Lyric
By Bill Gowen | Daily Herald Classical Music Critic
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Published: 3/2/2008 10:00 AM

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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the great tunesmiths of music. His symphonies, concertos and overtures are staples of the symphonic repertoire, filled with memorable melodies and high drama, hallmarks of the romantic era.

Tchaikovsky composed 11 operas, but only a few are performed these days. Of those, "Eugene Onegin," which opened Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago, reigns supreme. It remains the most popular opera by a Russian composer in a country with memorable operas such as Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Aleksander Borodin's "Prince Igor."

"Eugene Onegin" was not even called an opera by the composer, his description being "Lyric Scenes in Three Acts." To many of its legion of fans, that's pure semantics.

Regardless how you categorize it, this is a wonderful way to spend an evening: memorable tunes for the soloists and chorus, and an orchestral score that matches anything else Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote.

Lyric Opera's production has as ideal a cast as one could hope for.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the critically acclaimed Siberian baritone who made his American operatic debut with the Lyric in the 1993-94 season, is unrivaled as Onegin, his signature role. It's a difficult role, one in which Onegin, in Act 1, he regards Tatyana's love letter to him as the work of a "daydreamer;" then, after several years have passed, he realizes he does love Tatyana. But having since married, she tells Onegin that although she still loves him, her life must go on without him.

The last moments of the opera, with the despondent Onegin realizing what might have been, is particularly memorable when portrayed by a singing-actor of Hvorostovsky's stature.

Tatyana is performed by Dina Kuznetsoza, the Russian-American soprano who has become a fixture at the Lyric, most recently last season as Juliette in "Romeo et Juliette" and as Gilda in "Rigoletto" in 2005-06.

"Eugene Onegin's emotional centerpiece is the so-called "letter scene" in Act 1. When the youthful Tatyana pours out her love, in writing, for Onegin, Kuznetsova handles this lengthy aria beautifully. Later, Kuznetsova is equally as convincing in her rejection scene.

American tenor Frank Lopardo, a Lyric Opera favorite for nearly two decades, nearly steals the show as the doomed Lensky, who realizes too late that challenging Onegin to a pistol duel is not such a good idea. Lopardo's heartfelt aria, "Kuda, kuda," foretelling his death, received one of the warmest responses from Saturday's audience.

Meredith Arwady was the heroine of the evening as Filipyevna, Tatyana's maidservant. The third-year Ryan Opera Center member, most recently acclaimed in the key role of Pasqualita in this season's production of "Doctor Atomic," took over on very short notice for English mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who was ill. Arwady's collaboration with Kuznetsova was a key element of the Letter Scene. The Michigan-born mezzo-soprano appears headed toward a major operatic career.

Michael Levine's stark scenic design (basically, three unadorned walls) was made effective by lighting that changed colors to show the time of day or night as well as reflect the mood of each scene. The costumes, also by Levine, were more traditional of the 1820s Russia in which "Eugene Onegin" is set.

Sir Andrew Davis captured the spirit of Tchaikovsky's dramatic and melodic score on Saturday, and the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus were in their usual top form.

"Eugene Onegin"

Where: Ardis Krainik Theatre, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.

When: Additional performances at 7:30 p.m. March 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 21 and 24; 2 p.m. March 27 and 30

Tickets: Call (312) 332-2244, Ext. 5600, or visit lyricopera.org, for availability and reservations; major credit cards accepted.

At a glance:

Seven lyric scenes in three acts by P.I. Tchaikovsky, with libretto by the composer and Konstantin Shilovasky from the verse novel by Aleksander Pushkin. Paula Suozzi, stage director; Robert Carsen, original director; Michael Levine, set and costume designer; Donald Nally, chorus master. Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Starring:

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin

Dina Kuznetsova as Tatyana

Frank Lopardo at Lensky

Meredith Arwady as Filipyevna

Vitalij Kowaljow as Prince Gremin

Marie Plette as Madame Larina

Nino Surguladze as Olga

Keith Jameson as Triquet