North Carolina Opera scored another triumph on a wintry Sunday afternoon with a single concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, sung in Russian (mostly) before a reasonably substantial crowd. The weather had made it touch-and-go for presenters throughout the region (and beyond) all weekend, but NCO soldiered on and was lucky that the main roads and streets and the sidewalks surrounding Meymandi Concert Hall were clear. (It’s curious that, next door in Memorial Auditorium, a Chinese dance company was holding forth as Russian singing dominated the concert room. Better not tell any conservative politicians!)

Onegin, the second of this year’s three major offerings, received its regional premiere on this occasion – hard to imagine, but Russian operas are rare birds hereabouts. It was in fact the company’s first Russian work, ever. Let’s hope it’s not its last.

The concert was preceded by an outstanding introductory lecture in the hall, given by Duke scholar Bryan Gilliam, whose remarks we are pleased to present elsewhere on, since they were too good, too important to be limited to the relative handful of folks who made it to the venue at 2:00 p.m. to hear him. He addressed the old East-West dichotomy centering on Tchaikovsky vs. his contemporaries. He also dealt handily with the Pushkin-based plot, reducing it to its essentials: passion (in Act I), remorse (Act II), and despair (Act III). For sure, this is not a formula to cheer folks suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Still, the music, composed in the wake of Swan Lake (and thus well before the two other famous ballets), magnificently reflects the emotions and moods of the protagonists – Lensky, enamored of Olga, Onegin, later enamored of Tatiana, the girls’ mother and their nurse, and, in the last act, Prince Gremin, who married Tatiana on the rebound, as it were. Along the way there’s lots of great dance music – and plenty of folk-like music, too.

The plot may be briefly outlined (for the benefit of future listeners*): Lensky introduces his pal Onegin to his girlfriend’s sister, who falls for him; Onegin rejects her. In Act II, the two men show up at a party, where Onegin is bored. He flirts with Lensky’s gal, eliciting such anger that a challenge ensues, leading to a duel in which Lensky is killed. Onegin goes into exile, basically, but returns in Act III to make another play for Tatiana, now wed to the Prince. He gets his comeuppance when she ultimately rejects him and sends him from her life forever (forever being a very long time). The nurse is through in Act I. Mama (Larina) and Olga sing their last in Act II (which is the act to hear, if you are hearing only one), and Lensky dies. And in Act III, we meet the Prince and his fairly recent bride, who dashed Onegin’s hopes on her way out, leaving him alone on stage to curse his fate…. (It’s not surprising that some in attendance must have pulled for Lensky to shoot Onegin so the work could end on a happier note, but it was not to be.) For a period piece, it manages to convey genuine emotion, even to 21st-century audiences. Did we say Onegin is a cad? (The moral of the story: payback is hell.)

Effective supertitles, very well managed, kept everyone up to speed with regard to the unfolding drama.

The cast was – in a word – spectacular. Onegin was richly and evenly portrayed by baritone Joo Won Kang; Lensky was tenor Eric Barry, who made a consistently favorable impression, scoring big in his several crucial arias. (Yes, it’s very much a “number” opera, with orchestral pauses to allow for applause, of which there was plenty!) Soprano Joyce El-Khoury was stunning in her insightful portrayal of Tatiana, making a huge success in the “Letter Scene” and elsewhere. Her sister Olga was sung with keen awareness by mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde. The mother was sung by Robynne Redmon, secure of voice and dramatically effective.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg (replacing the previously-announced Soloman Howard) wowed the crowd as Gremin, vocally and in terms of his commanding physical presence and stature; this man surely has bigger and even better things in his future, including (let me predict) a great career as Boris.

It’s funny how, sometimes, artists who play comprimario parts can come to dominate the proceedings. This was often the case in Act I, wherein the singing and acting of the great Victoria Livengood, the Nurse, consistently drew attention (in invariably favorable ways, and never ostentatiously). Vocally she was resplendent, reminding senior listeners of her many great leading roles. Dramatically, she was “on” at every moment, whether singing or not, engaging actively with eye-contact and facial expression.

All the principals except Švēde and Livengood have previously appeared with NCO, although the latter, a Thomasville native and UNC grad, is widely known here from her performances with other companies.

The smaller supporting roles were sung by Jason Ferrante (Triquet, the family’s French tutor), Charles Hyland (Zaretsky), Joseph Ittoop (Peasant), and Scott Macleod (Captain and chorus master).

The solo artists were attired in concert dress; they stood or sat on chairs arrayed across the lip of the platform. The only props were the pistols and two scraps of paper that served as the letters – Tatiana’s, to Onegin, in Act I, and his, to her, in Act III.

The chorus, positioned unobtrusively at the back of the stage, consisted of around 40 well-balanced local vocalists.

The orchestra, assembled (by contractor Paul Gorski) from among the region’s best freelancers, was conducted with skill and evident attentiveness by NCO artistic director Timothy Myers, whose work here has earned consistent acclaim, and who here was equally effective, standing or sitting. The playing was everywhere exemplary, in all sections, in solos and ensembles, even in the score’s trickiest parts. The bottom line: this was an idiomatic reading that would have been at home on any major stage. And if the players missed any rehearsal time, chances are no one in the hall knew it.

This was good, and those who heard it were richly rewarded with a magnificent reading of an important score, far too little known except by opera connoisseurs and specialists. There were plenty of those in attendance. That NCO is concurrently building a new audience for opera right here in central NC may however be the most admirable thing about the appeal of this glowing performance. Well done!

The next NCO presentation will be The Barber of Seville, on April 1 and 3. See our calendar for details.

*Note that Eugene Onegin will be broadcast and streamed by WCPE (89.7 FM) on May 5, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time.

PS: To hear how the Russians used to do it, and to help prepare for the May broadcast/webcast, readers may wish to listen to the second of the great tenor Ivan Kozlovsky’s recordings as Lensky, made in 1948, with superb colleagues. It’s available on YouTube, here.