Conductor -
Pavel Sharomov,
Honored Artist of Russia

RACS Art Director -Zlata Lund

Русский Хор на Аляске

Pride, prejudice, Pushkin

Anchorage Opera's first Russian production is a multi-dimensional masterpiece

Next Saturday night, for the first time ever, Anchorage Opera will present a Russian language production -- Peter Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

There's almost nothing you can compare "Onegin" to in the rest of operatic literature. Tchaikovsky didn't even call it an opera, but preferred "Lyric Scenes." The title character is neither hero nor villain, but a deeply conflicted man forced to face his emptiness when he crosses paths with a headstrong girl. Though there's bloodshed, the real tragedy here isn't death -- but indecision. Instead of royalty, gods or exotic ethnics, the characters seem to step from the pages, period and social world of Jane Austen.

Legions of "Onegin" fans insist that it's a unique masterpiece. Not only are the plot and personalities richly mutli-layered, but the music ranks with Tchaikovsky's best. There are people who say the way they look at art and life was transformed when they were first exposed to this piece. The world of opera seems divided between those who adore "Onegin" and those who haven't heard it yet. It's the most performed Russian opera around the world and a staple in bigger theaters.

So why has it taken this long to get here?

One obstacle has been the language. Russian singers were mostly confined to Russia before the 1990s. Non-Russian singers didn't want to put too much effort into learning a language that wouldn't apply to the many available roles in Italian, French or German. The alternative was to perform it in translation, which gave rise to oddnesses like Fyodor Chaliapin singing "Boris Godunov" in Russian while the Met chorus accompanied him in Italian.

Today, with translations projected above the stage or from individual screens at the seats, the opera-in-translation movement has gone to the back burner. And over the last 20 years there's been a migration of Russian talent to the rest of the world.

The leads in the Anchorage "Onegin" are native Russian-speakers who have lived in America long enough to pick up hints of East Coast accents.

Soprano Veronica Mitina, who will sing the role of Tatiana in Anchorage, was born in St. Petersburg and now lives in New York. She's performed standard roles like Mimi, Tosca and Butterfly in venues from Chicago and St. Louis to France.

In a review of Virginia Opera's first ever "Onegin" two years ago (Anchorage isn't the only place trying to catch up), one of America's leading critics, Anne Midgette, wrote in the Washington Post:

"Of the principals, the strongest was Mitina, a lovely singer who was convincing as both the young girl and the more mature woman in the final scenes, and whose voice had most of the lyricism, if not all of the heft, that the tricky role of Tatiana (both virginal and strong) requires."

At a pre-rehearsal interview in Anchorage, Mitina described Tatiana as "a country girl, from a village on the outskirts, bookish, very romantic and even introverted, with a rich inner world."

Tatiana has never been in love, Mitina said, until she's introduced to Onegin by her flirty sister's boyfriend. She is immediately infatuated and pours out her heart in a passionate love letter.

"It would have been revolutionary, back then, for a woman to take the first step," Mitina said, "to be the one who made the first touch. She is very courageous."

Onegin coldly dismisses her attention. Only later, when it becomes obvious that other men see more in her than he did and when she has acquired a strong sense of herself, does he realize his mistake.

Anton Belov, who has the title role, was born in Moscow and now resides in Massachusetts. Alaskans have heard the baritone in powerful performances of "Il Trovatore" and "Carmen" in Anchorage Opera productions.

"Onegin is very complicated," Belov said. "He's bored, depressed, sometimes lustful, but tired of chasing skirts."

"He's shallow," Mitina chimed in. "Not believing in much."

Belov said the dispassionate persona Onegin projects is hard to pinpoint and even harder to sing. "It's not flashy for two acts. Then, in the third act, he finally breaks out of his emotional shell."

(The long, calculated tension followed by overwhelming melodic release is a big reason for the enthusiasm of those who love "Onegin.")

A scholar of Russian vocal music, as well as a teacher, with several publications to his credit, Belov said the key to Onegin's soul -- such as it is -- may lie in a part of the original book that isn't in the opera. During Onegin's wanderings abroad, Tatiana goes to his deserted mansion and finds his collection of books. "Onegin reads a lot of books," Belov said. "That's part of the problem."

Tatiana peruses his library, particularly noting what he has underlined and notes he's made in the margins; she wonders if "perhaps he's a parody of the romantic hero."

Like Lord Byron's "Childe Harold," another self-absorbed and brutally selfish character. "Pushkin initially adored Byron," Belov said, "but in the end he despised him."

At this point the conversation between the two singers switched -- in a very Russian way, complete with numerous earnest asides in Russian -- from music to literature, specifically to Alexander Pushkin, who wrote the verse novel on which Tchaikovsky based his opera.

"We call him the Russian Shakespeare," Mitina said, "and not for nothing."

Serious fiction, children's stories, ground-breaking essays and profound poetry were all part of Pushkin's output over a life that lasted less than 40 years. He's been described as Dickens, Keats, Thomas Paine and Hans Christian Andersen all rolled into one. His writing is still adored and known by heart throughout the Russian-speaking world.

To illustrate this, on Feb. 8, during a break from the run, Belov will be joined by the Russian American Colony Singers and pianist Svetlana Velichko in a wide-ranging program of solo and choral music that uses Pushkin's poetry, all arranged to follow his life story. It's hard to think of any other author for whom such a concert would be possible.

Part of "Onegin's" lasting popularity in book form is because "it's so easy to read, so witty and funny," said Belov.

"He's always playing with words, inventing new words," said Mitina.

There's a history of scholarly interpretation of "Onegin." Belov mentioned Dostoyevsky's reading of it as reflecting a proud and prejudicial aristocracy that had lost its connection to the common people. "But that's a nationalist approach," he added.

It's ironic that "Onegin" would be the most successful of Tchaikovsky's numerous operas, said Belov. (Less than a handful are performed now, even in Russia, Mitina said.) He cited an observation by music critic Cesar Cui to the effect that Tchaikovsky was a melodist who did not set good poets for his songs. "And for 'Onegin,' he cut-and-pasted a lot. The fight at the ball in the second act isn't even in the book."

Where the opera and book concur is their depiction of the hero's confused identity. "Throughout the book, Tatiana asks the question, 'Who is he?' " Belov said.

That's never quite answered, said Mitina. "The opera really ends with a huge question mark."

As to why other composers never went for lead parts with such ambiguity, Belov said, "Opera loves one-dimensional characters."

"I don't know about that," said Mitina. "Is Tosca one-dimensional?"

Hardly, but we do know a lot about her five minutes into the opera. That contrasts with Onegin who. Belov said, "has a lot underneath, but doesn't like to show it."

The discussion would surely have sprawled into any number of fascinating new directions, but it was time for the principals to get back to rehearsals.

ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Anton Belov and Veronica Mitina appear in the Anchorage Opera production of "Eugene Onegin," which is performed in Russian.
Photo courtesy Anchorage Opera
Anton Belov plays Escamillo, the toreador, in Anchorage Opera's production of "Carmen." Belov has the title role in "Onegin."
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P. O. Box 770787,
Eagle River,
Alaska 99577, U.S.A.