From Russia with passion

The world of opera has much more to offer than the 10 or so works that companies like Opera Carolina perform in steady rotation. After six decades, Charlotte’s group finally is staging its first opera from Russia: Tchaikovsky’s lyrical and fiery “Eugene Onegin.” It’s new to most everyone involved -- onstage, in the orchestra pit and in the audience.

But the singers in the central roles are right at home. Even if you didn’t read it in their bios, their intensity, soul and red-blooded singing would tell you. They’re the people who really are introducing Tchaikovsky’s opera -- the story of a young man who causes waves of heartache to himself and others -- to Charlotte.

Opera Carolina’s staging of “Onegin,” which opened Saturday, also offers richly costumed ballroom scenes that establish the high-society setting and lend audience-friendly glitter. The Charlotte Symphony’s dynamic and delicate playing amplifies the characters’ emotions. But the principals are the heart of the matter.

Vasily Ladyuk, who plays Onegin, brings dimension to a character who could easily seem just cold-hearted. Ladyuk’s ringing tones exude the confidence of a man who puts himself at the center of the universe. But he gives Onegin more shadings than that.

When young Tatiana, smitten with Onegin at first sight, confesses feelings for him that he doesn’t reciprocate, Ladyuk’s gentleness shows that Onegin isn’t merely being heartless by laying out the facts. As Onegin begins recognizing the trouble he brings those near him, Ladyuk’s questioning tone tells what’s happening inside -- not that Onegin changes his ways. When love for Tatiana finally flares up inside Onegin, years too late, Ladyuk’s voice surges again. Now its edge of desperation helps drive the opera’s finish.

As Tatiana, Dina Kuznetsova brings the music as much abandon and full-throatedness as Ladyuk does. But revealing Tatiana’s vulnerability -- she fears love as much as she craves it -- is where Kuznetsova really hits home. Time and again, she spins out Tchaikovsky’s lyricism in a mere thread of whispering sound. Its fragility embodies her feelings. Yet it has strength enough to project throughout the theater.

The other person who suffers because of Onegin is his friend Lensky. Lensky is a poet, but Yeghishe Manucharyan’s bright, ardent voice shows that doesn’t mean being a shrinking violet. He matches Ladyuk’s electricity. The rest of the cast isn’t on the same level, though. There are vigorous performances, but they’re rough.

Dawn Pierce is a lively presence as Olga, Lensky’s sweetheart, but singing in tune gets lost in the process. Victoria Livengood belts out most everything that comes from Tatiana’s servant and confidante, Filipevna -- even what ought to be cozy chitchat. As Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s husband as of late in the story, Kristopher Irmiter is resonant, not smooth.

In the party scenes, which are an important part of the opera’s appeal -- especially for newcomers to Russian works -- the Opera Carolina Chorus carries on with spirit. Conductor James Meena doesn’t keep it synchronized with the orchestra as well as usual, though. A quartet from N.C. Dance Theatre, choreographed by Mark Diamond, also livens up the shindigs, even though the set’s proliferation of columns doesn’t leave much room to maneuver. In the comic-relief cameo of Monsieur Triquet, who entertains one of the parties, John Kaneklides goes all-out playing the fop.

But the further the story unfolds, the more its focus is on Onegin and Tatiana. Stage director Brian Deedrick puts Onegin’s emotional aloofness in the spotlight, literally -- periodically planting Ladyuk in the glare by himself. Regardless of any theatrical gambits like that, though, the passions that Ladyuk and Kuznetsova set loose through Tchaikovsky’s music are what really hit home.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer