A heartbreaking “Eugene Onegin”

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Eugene Onegin”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Mar. 20
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing out its 2016-17 season with a big, bold bang. Its revival of the Robert Carsen production of “Eugene Onegin,” which I saw in the third performance of the run, features some of the best singing of the season. Pushkin’s story of the anti-hero who realizes his mistakes too late is realized with gorgeous, evocative interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Polish tenor Mariusz Kwiecien fully embodies the title character. He opens with aristocratic charm and when he rejects Tatiana he does so with a coldness only Siberia can match. By the end, the broken Onegin is rendered with superlative angst.

Soprano Ana María Martínez is a fetching Tatiana in her role debut. She could do with more detail in the letter-writing scene, but her attention to girlish gestures makes up for a lot as does her maturity in the final act.

Lensky is given full life by Charles Castronovo, whose supple and heartbreaking singing before the duel with Onegin generated the biggest applause of the evening.

Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy has a star turn as Prince Gremin, the man Tatiana marries after Onegin’s rejection. He sings with both love and dignity communicated in every line. Russian mezzo Alisa Kolosova is an engaging and flirtatious Olga. American mezzo Jill Grove is all you could want in Filipyevna, with beautiful dark sound.

Making his American debut, Alejo Pérez draws romantic sound from the pit, creating a lush blanket to surround the singers. The Lyric Opera Chorus sounds magnificent, whether as peasants or the upper crust.

The set is the same as Lyric offered in the 2007-08 season (owned by the Met) where the action takes place in a huge box (designed by Michael Levine), perhaps to highlight how Onegin’s boxed himself into unhappiness by his own actions. But the sparseness is sometimes at odds with the libretto. In a grand scene full of dancing, revival director Paula Suozzi has everyone clustered rather tightly in the center of the stage so that the dancing is cramped, which hardly seems to fit the lavishness of the score. Yet the production succeeds because of its world class music making.

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For Black History Month, the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago presented the premiere of a new work by Chicago soprano Joelle Lamarre at the end of last month. “The Violet Hour” is a 60-minute look at the life of one of our country’s greatest sopranos: Leontyne Price. (The title comes from the diva’s full name, Mary Violet Leontyne Price.) Roughly half music and half spoken word, it tells the life of Price from her humble beginnings in the South up until her triumphant retirement from opera after her final performance as Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera.

It’s a modified one-woman show, with Lamarre playing Price, as well as Price’s mother and Big Auntie. Much of the text is purely expository, trying to squeeze in as much biography as possible. It’s punctuated throughout with music, including Price’s favorite spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.” We hear many of the songs and arias for which Price was well-known and widely admired.

This is where Lamarre shone brightly. Her renditions of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aïda, to name but two of the many musical elements, captured the magic of Price’s glorious interpretations.

The spoken sections fared less well. Lamarre was often difficult to hear and too much was played for laughs with lines that were only a teeny bit humorous. The multi-talented Robert Sims appeared briefly as the president of Wilberforce College, but he was wasted in a clichéd scene of shy student and avuncular professor.

It would have been so much more interesting if the text portions were less Wikipedia and more dramatic investigations into what made Price tick. We learned, for example, that she was friends with Samuel Barber and Herbert von Karajan, yet I longed to know how these relationships affected each of them.

The production had the air of a workshop about it, starting half-an-hour late, and featuring dingy stage lighting only erratically enhanced with spots. Some characters listed in the program never appeared, presumably jettisoned at the last minute. And a single hour seems far too short to encompass the life of someone as magnificent as Leontyne Price.

This free event filled the South Shore Cultural Center’s Robeson Theater and the audience seemed well pleased with it.