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Photograph by Pat Kirk RUSSIAN DUET: Krassen Karagiozov and Heather Calvete star in Opera San José's season opener.

Letter Perfect

An impassioned 'Onegin' opens Opera San José season on a high note

By Scott MacClelland

OPENING ITS 25th anniversary season, Opera San José kicked last season's already-high standards up another couple of notches. It seems unlikely that any other domestic company of similar resources wouldn't be jealous of the company's new Evgeny Onegin. Konstantin Shilovsky's tightly written libretto based on Pushkin's poem—amazingly, he wrote this great social commentary in metered and rhyming verse—inspired Tchaikovsky to rare heights of intimate expression. Sunday afternoon's performance, the first by this cast (the main roles are double cast), gave its audience a genuinely satisfying opera experience across the board.

Among the cast, four debuts included two new members of the resident company, the fine lyric baritone Krassen Karagiozov in the title role, and lyric mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland as Olga, the younger sister of the tragic heroine Tatyana. In that role, soprano Heather Calvete, heard in OSJ's recent La bohème and Rigoletto, created a deeply sympathetic character in the solo Letter Scene of Act 1, in which Tatyana commits her infatuated and naïve heart to Onegin; one couldn't help but feel her humiliation in the subsequent scene when Onegin appears and, in response to the letter, promises to "love her like a brother." This emotional high point of the performance propelled all the subsequent action.

Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky's music continually heightened the emotion and drama, not least for the sure hand of conductor Bryan Nies, for five years an OSJ assistant, making his company debut now as a podium principal. He had the score and all the primary stage roles down pat, alternately igniting and darkening the orchestra in pace with the stage action. That included the big—almost too big for the stage—choreographed dancing in all three acts: rustic peasants in the first, the famous choral waltz that opens the second and the equally famous polonaise in the third. (Period costumes in all three, designed originally for the Santa Fe Opera, provided generous eye-candy.) It must take a traffic cop to keep all the choristers singing and dancing and in the correct costumes du moment.

The part of Olga is limited, allowing only a glimpse—though a good one—of Coffland's potential. Vocally and dramatically she showed off her previous stage experience. As Lensky, Olga's betrothed, Travis Jones made his first OSJ appearance with an urgent and distinctive tenor, having obviously gained valuable experience in New York. He made a fine and haunting account of Lensky's aria in Act 2. I hope he'll return for subsequent OSJ productions, and even gain some needed acting skills. Karagiozov showed more stage polish, and as a resident he'll get valuable additional stage training here. Others deserving notice included MaryAnne Stanslaw as Madame Larina, Tori Grayum as Filipievna, Isaiah Musik-Ayala as Zaretsky, Erik Kroncke as Prince Gremin and, delightfully over the top, Michael Mendelsohn as Monsieur Triquet.

In his OSJ debut, stage director Peter Kozma showed an excellent grasp of the drama and the space. The best example perhaps was the party scene in Act 3 when Prince Gremin sings to Onegin of all the phonies and hangers-on at court, in their presence, but by freezing them in motion, and moving them in slo-mo we know they can't hear such slander. David Lee Cuthbert's lighting abetted that effect and worked wonders of economy with Erik Flatmo's versatile set design.

EVGENY ONEGIN, an Opera San José production, plays Sept. 11, 13, 16 and 19 at 8pm and Sept. 14 and 21 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $69–$91. (408.437.4450)

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