Opposites still attract in L.A. Opera's 'Onegin' and 'Così'

Ferrando-Fiordiligi-LAOp.jpgAh, love! Ah, love lost! Ah, love deliciously betrayed! So begins the Los Angeles Opera's seasonal salvo: with the profound Russian melancholy of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and the antic comeuppance of Mozart's "Così fan tutte."

So if you run down the freeway to catch both works, bear in mind that the two are worlds apart in their notions of the human condition.

Think Tchaikovsky -- all those sighing, soaring strings, all those upward woodwind spirals that spell unquenchable love pangs, unrequited longing, doom and tragedy - and just by listening, you'll be overcome by the composer's anguished passion, softened by his tenderly lilting waltzes. Especially because music director James Conlon elicits all, gorgeously, from his pit orchestra.

Open your eyes, though, and this Steven Pimlott production from Covent Garden can dislocate you - jarringly - to a universe the music does not inhabit. Really.

Just try to imagine an outdoorsy "Onegin," one where Tatiana's debutante ball - set to a glorious waltz -- looks like a last-minute affair held in a tiny bus-station ante-room, with a few dancers crowding a beadboard wall. Not the place that an upper-class family with a rolling country estate would deposit its daughter for a festive birthday party.

Oksana Dyka (Tatiana) and Dalibor Jenis (Onegin)

Or the other dancing scene, this time at Prince Gremin's grand St. Petersburg manor house: here the once innocent, vulnerable, impetuous Tatiana has become a Princessly wife, a grand lady, and when the returning Onegin spies her, it's not as Tchaikovsky intended -- with his sweepingly triumphant, joyful polonaise that showcases her in a glittery ballroom -- but on a wintry street after a funeral cortège (to that same music.)

Gone is Onegin's heightened sense of loss of this now-unattainable, much-married, exceedingly elegant Tatiana. Gone is the crushing heart-ache for this anti-hero who, too late, realizes his desparate love for her.

Granted, the disconnect between score and staging would be tough for a cast, or even the deputy director Francesca Gilpin, to counteract. But in the title role Dalibor Jenis -- though attractive enough in a lobotomized Rasputin sort of way and boasting a vibrant baritone -- was a stick.

Only at the end, pleading his case with the one he lost, did he come to life. Oksana Dyka at least gave us a clue to Tatiana's turbulent inner world and asserted her ample, if somewhat metallic soprano, though weak in softer singing. Even better, Vsevolod Grivnov, as the doomed Lensky sang his breakout aria with a wonderfully nuanced expression of sadness and equal parts musicianship. If only he'd not sounded so nasal in those earlier agitated scenes.

Ekaterina Semenchuk made Olga a vivacious flirt, the perfect contrast to her withdrawn, book-ish sister Tatiana, and James Creswell simply luxuriated in his burnished basso, singing Gremin's aria for its own gorgeous sake but without a whit of any dramatic flair. It's called stand-and-sing.

But think Mozart and we're in another performance universe altogether. Especially with "Così," because it simply delights in amorous tomfoolery. Tests of fidelity? Plenty of 'em. Switcheroo shenanigans? You betcha. After all, the title -- "Women Are Like That" -- gives more than a hint of things to come.

And this cleanly framed production -- also by Brits Nicholas Hytner (direction) and Vicki Mortimer (designs) and carried out by deputy Ashley Dean -- is fluidly drawn, contemporary enough in style and appearance, thanks, in no small part, to a cast that's lithe, young and hyper-attractive.

What makes this rococo farce special, though, is how Mozart managed to insert the most sublime drifts of music -- like the farewell trio and several of the arias -- that are sung in-between those scenes here loaded with wide-eyeball mugging and gropey-feely sexcapades.

Saimir Pirgu (Ferrando), Ruxandra Donose (Dorabella), Aleksandra Kurzak (Fiordiligi) and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo) in Così fan tutte.

James Conlon shepherded his orchestra with, perhaps, a surfeit of muscular vigor, but settled down to allow some airiness for the lyric moments and, most important in an ensemble work like this, kept close rapport between pit and stage.

All six singers boasted estimable talent. Top among them is Aleksandra Kurzak, who made a credibly conscientious Fiordiligi, and let her clear, pure soprano float effortlessly to the rafters, took on the coloratura challenge with chiseled perfection and could land lovely, low notes securely from wide intervals without register clicks.

Ruxandra Donose, as her hedonistic sister Dorabella, put the wheels of infidelity in motion and showed off her mezzo attractively. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo captured both the subtle swagger and endearing naiveté of Guglielmo by way of a darkly honeyed bass-baritone. Tenor Saimir Pirgu carried off his upright Ferrando well and later transformed into a louche type but could use a better vocal technique, while Lorenzo Regazzo's Alfonso and Roxana Constaninescu's Despina made for the wiliest of conspirators.

Photos for L.A. Opera by Robert Millard

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