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"Eugene Onegin" -- Adding a Splash of Vodka to the Repertory

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jul 14, 2011 - 1:17:05 PM in news_2011


The most frequently performed opera in Cincinnati Opera history is -- you guessed it -- “Carmen,” with 49 productions to date (170 performances).

One of the fateful gypsy’s lesser known operatic sisters, Tatyana from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” takes the Music Hall stage July 14 and 16 for only the second time in Cincinnati Opera’s 91-year history (third and fourth performances).  The first was in November, 1984, in English.

The ladies are very different, Carmen a spitfire femme fatale, Tatyana a sensitive, principled young girl.

But the real difference is genre.  “Onegin” is a Russian opera and will be sung in Russian, a first for Cincinnati Opera.  Accordingly to annals compiled by Eldred Thierstein in “Cincinnati Opera: From the Zoo to Music Hall” (1995), updated to the present, Italian opera accounts for 36% of all opera performed by the company.  Next is German with 18%, American with 17% (counting musicals), French with 16% and English with 7%.  The rest -- Czech, Russian, Hungarian, Swedish and Spanish -- make up 6%, with Russian a mere 1%.

That 1% comprises two operas, “Eugene Onegin” and “Boris Godunov.”  Historically, “Boris” has been a vehicle for star basses, with Ezio Pinza in 1948, Italo Tajo in 1958 and Norman Treigle in 1974.  Pinza and Tajo sang Boris in Italian, Treigle in English, said opera historian Charles Parsons.

Russian opera is under-represented in the U.S., primarily because of the language, said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, the industry trade organization.  “In the past, stars associated with U.S. opera companies didn’t sing Russian.  Also, Russian is not a commonly spoken language among the audience, and until the introduction of translation systems in the mid-1980s, even a well-educated audience was kind of left out of understanding what was going on onstage.”

These hurdles have been met with the introduction of surtitles and the influx of Russian-speaking singers since the fall of Communism.  Other reasons for the relative infrequency of Russian opera are an emphasis on spectacle and the scenic demands that entails, a fairly large and “wonderful” orchestra and extra rehearsals for the chorus.  “It is not as easy to put on a wonderful romantic Russian opera as it is a wonderful Verdi or Puccini opera,” said Scorca.  Also, Russian requires extra language facility.  “It is a set of pronunciation skills that is not as ubiquitous as French, Italian or German.”

Only one of the singers in “Eugene Onegin,” Tatiana Monogarova (Tatyana), is a native Russian.  (Conductor Vasily Petrenko is also Russian.)

“Onegin” cast members have met the language requirement in various ways.  For tenor Bill Burden, who sings Lensky, the poet killed in a duel with Onegin (a role debut), it means relying on Tchaikovsky’s “incredibly idiomatic” setting of the text.

“There are great resources for word-for-word translation and things that are incredibly helpful,” he said, but “interestingly, it is sort of taking me back to what I consider to be the roots of opera, when people wouldn’t have knowledge of language, and before supertitles, when composers wrote their music so that the story could be told even without text.  I find that the staging helps me very much.  It is incumbent on me as an artist to make sure that what I’m doing physically and the way I’m playing the scene conveys clearly that I know what I’m saying, that I understand what’s being said to me, and there are conversations going on.”  (Burden sang Don Jose in Cincinnati Opera’s “Carmen” in 2009.)

Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, who sings Tatyana’s mother Madame Larina (also a role debut), learned to sing Russian with the help of the International Phonetic Alphabet, Anton Belov’s “Libretti of Russian Operas,” which uses IPA transcriptions, and her husband, bass Gustav Andreassen.

“I took the IPA from the book and put it into my score.”  Still, it wasn’t as “easy” as that, she said.  “There are some sounds in Russian that are unique, so there were some new IPA symbols I had to learn for this specific language.” 

Rishoi translated the text, then enlisted Andreassen, a fellow graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, who not only studied Russian diction (with Ken Griffiths at CCM), but has sung Prince Gremin in “Onegin” for San Francisco Opera.  “He was my initial coach,” she said. (Rishoi and Andreassen were Maddalena and Sparafucile in Cincinnati Opera’s “Rigoletto” last month.) 

This summer Rishoi and other members of the cast have worked with Russian coach Elena Kholodova at Cincinnati Opera, as well.  “It’s a beautiful language,” said Rishoi.  “People may not think so, but it’s one of the most lyrical, easy languages to sing.”

Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas would like to bring more Russian repertoire to Cincinnati, he said.

There is much to choose from.  Tchaikovsky himself wrote ten operas (he only wrote six symphonies), including another masterpiece, “The Queen of Spades.”  Russian opera heard in the U.S. since 1991, according to Opera America, includes:  Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” “Queen of Spades” and “Mazeppa,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Csar’s Bride,” Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and “Khovanshchina,” Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila,” Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges,” ”Fiery Angel,” ”War and Peace” and ”The Gambler” and Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “The Nose.”  Having arrived fairly late on the opera scene (Russian national opera is generally dated from Glinka’s 1836 “A Life for the Csar”) Russian opera is “fundamentally romantic, passionate and beautiful to listen to,” said Scorca.

“Prince Igor” opened the old Corbett Auditorium at CCM in 1967, Parsons noted (the conductor was Erich Kunzel, then head of the CCM opera department).  “They scheduled four performances and it was so popular they did four more.  The production (by Frank Corsaro) was so good that New York City Opera bought it and did it in New York.

“They should do it here if they want a spectacle.  I mean they could turn it into the Russian ‘Aida.’”

Cincinnati Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” in Russian with English surtitles, at 7:30 p.m. July 14 and 16 at Music Hall.  Starring as Eugene Onegin in his Cincinnati Opera (and role) debut is baritone Nathan Gunn. Tatyana is soprano Tatiana Monogarova, with tenor Bill Burden as Lensky, mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak as Olga, mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi as Madame Larina, mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu as Filippyevna, bass Denis Sedov as Prince Gremin and tenor Steven Cole as Monsieur Triquet.  Vasily Petrenko will conduct.  Mark Streshinsky directs. The period production is by Indiana University Opera Theatre.  Tickets are $26-$160 at (513) 241-2742, or visit www.cincinnatiopera.org

Synopsis.  Late 18th century. Sisters Tatyana and Olga, who live in the country with their mother, are visited by Olga’s fiancé Lensky.  Lensky has brought his friend Eugene Onegin with him. Tatyana falls immediately in love with Onegin and writes him a passionate letter.  Onegin brushes her off.  Later, at a party celebrating Tatyana’s name day, Onegin flirts with Olga and angers Lensky who challenges him to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky.  Some years later, at a grand ball, Onegin meets Tatyana, now the wife of Prince Gremin, and realizes that he loves her. He writes her a passionate letter. Tatyana meets him and confesses that she still loves him, but will not dishonor her marriage, leaving Onegin distraught.

(first published in Express Cincinnati July/August, 2011)