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April 27, 2009

Maryland Opera Studio's 'Eugene Onegin' provided new local benchmark for college productions

I didn't get to catch up with Maryland Opera Studio's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin until the last performance Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Center, but it was definitely a case of better-late-than-never for me.

Onegin, of course, is a story about young people in and out of love (and luck), so a student performance can offer a certain built-in verisimilitude factor. Such was the case here. But the opera still requires considerable talents from all involved to yield a satisfying performance. This venture, easily the finest college-level opera production I've encountered yet in this area, met the challenge admirably.

OK, so the orchestra was a weak link, prone to smushy entrances and iffy intonation. But those musicians really played, putting a lot of fire into Tchaikovsky's wonderful score as they responded to the exceptionally sensitive conducting of James Ross. Just the way Ross shaped the Letter Scene was worth the trip, with subtle, telling rhythmic nuance. Of course, it helped that he had in Jennifer Forni a remarkable soprano to sing that scene.

Forni, as the hopelessly lovesick Tatyana, sounded like a singer already well on her way to enjoying a successful career. Her voice revealed warmth and evenness throughout the registers, never turning harsh when pushed, and her phrasing was consistently eloquent. It was exciting to hear such a young artist so technically accomplished and so attentive to the subtler points of interpretive expression. Her acting skills were just a little less incisive than her musicality, but Forni nonetheless conveyed a good deal of Tatyana's naive, endearing character.

As the cruelly indifferent, ultimately vulnerable Onegin, Aaron Agulay ...

needed more in the way of dramatic assurance to reveal the multiple layers of the character's nature. The baritone could have used greater tonal variety and heft in places, too. Nonetheless, the basic needs of the role were ably filled and, especially in the last act, when Onegin realizes his foolish misjudgments, Agulay let loose with impressive singing.

Logan Rucker offered beautifully shaded vocalism as the romantic and rash Lenski. The tenor's voice was light, yet penetrating, and his sense of how to shape a phrase proved quite affecting. Like Forni, he seemed already well prepared for the fully professional realm. 

A rounder, meatier tone would have enriched Stephanie Sadownik's turn as Olga, but she proved an engaging presence. Although Stephen Brody did not have the tonal richness for Prince Gremin's aria, he showed distinct promise. Alexandra Christoforakis created a vivid portrayal of the maid Filipyvevna. And, in a bit of luxury casting, veteran mezzo Delores Ziegler, a Maryland Opera Studio staffer, offered an authoritative Larina. The chorus produced a mostly solid sound. Peter Burroughs sang sturdily as Triquet, but, unfortunately, was called on to treat the character in the terribly campy way so often, and so unnecessarily, adapted in stagings of Onegin.

That tired Triquet bit was about only element in Leon Major's direction that didn't measure up in his otherwise telling production, which made maximum use of Misha Kachman's minimalist set. The scene change between the ball and the duel in Act 2 was achieved in particularly imaginative fashion.

All in all, a classy validation of Maryland Opera Studio.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER, COURTESY OF CLARICE SMITH CENTER (Aaron Agulay, as Onegin; Jennifer Forni as Tatyana)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:32 PM | | Comments (3)


Didn't that final aria give you goosebumps? I mean, we all know how the opera ends, but I still choked up during Onegin and Tatyana's final moments. Thrilling singing and acting. Forni was a marvel throughout and Agulay was pure heartbreak in that perfect finale. TEARS!

I won't say I got teary (you know how hard-hearted we critics are), but I did get a little chill in that last scene, where both of those singers really hit home. A remarkable achievement, I'd say. And better in some respects than a few all-pro productions I've caught. Thanks for commenting. TIM

Glad you attended and reported on the performance. I attended the 4/23 performance and enjoyed it very much (even with the orchestra's intonation problems, which was a surprise). I feel that university/conservatory opera productions are a great value and a terrific opportunity to experience opera repertoire that is not so widely available (at least live). I've enjoyed performances at UMd (last fall's Britten's Dream, Serse, and Onegin), Juilliard (Rorem's Our Town), Peabody (last fall's Sharpears the Vixen - fantastic orchestra), and GA State (of all places) in a very good performance of Poulenc's Dialogues. Enjoy your blog and find it a good way of keeping up with Baltimore/DC goings-on down here in Georgia.

Thanks for your comments. Campus productions are, as you say, great value, and they often provide remarkable artistic rewards. Delighted to know you're following our scene from Georgia.TIM

Mr. Smith, I'm not sure if you'd be interested in this, but there's a UM blog bursting with audience comments about this production. It's a surprise to see such an outpouring of opinion and support. Thanks for your work on behalf of the arts in the Baltimore region.

Thanks. I'll check it out.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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