Stage: Wednesday, September 1, 2004
Alison Tupay (Olga) and Francesco Petrozzi (Lensky) are star-crossed lovers in The Fort Worth Symphony’s ‘Eugene Onegin.’
From Russia With Love

Miguel Harth-Bedoya and The Fort Worth Symphony wrestled with Tchaikovsky this past weekend.


Of all the classical composers, Peter Tchaikovsky commands one of the broadest fan clubs. His passionate, theatrical style breathes with an emotional intensity that few can resist, even those who don’t care much about classical music. The Fort Worth Symphony chose the Russian giant for its annual one-composer festival last week in Bass Performance Hall, serving up his six symphonies and the opera Eugene Onegin in four back-to-back programs.

As in previous Augusts (past festivals have celebrated Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn), it was a daunting experience — for the audience as well as the orchestra. Preparing that much music in minimal time is a huge task. Listening to so much of the same man’s work in concentrated doses also requires heavy lifting. With the Tchaikovsky symphonies, which aren’t of equal interest, that’s especially true. It took the composer a while to find his sea legs in the idiom, and his first three efforts are a mixed bag. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya minimized the problem by coupling early works with later ones on each program, which helped, but a man overheard at intermission assuring his companion that “the next one will be better” summed up the effect.

Sometimes the schizophrenic nature of the listening experience was Tchaikovsky’s doing. The First Symphony, for example, includes some wonderful moments, such as the achingly beautiful string opening of the adagio movement (which Harth-Bedoya made the most of). But the symphony, for all its virtues, lacks focus, and after a while, the mind tends to wander. Then there’s the Third Symphony. A rollicking Polonaise that ends the piece isn’t enough to make you want to visit the work regularly, but the orchestra performed valiantly. (The Second Symphony, however, seemed under-rehearsed and tentative, almost perfunctory; it was the least distinguished performance heard at any of these festivals.)

Opening night’s performance of the First and Fourth Symphonies was more successful. Whether because the program was broadcast live by 101.1-FM/WRR and everyone was on their toes or because it had been rehearsed at great length, there was more detail and personality to the playing than was evident in the other early pieces, performed on successive evenings.

There were also times when everything worked. The mighty Fifth Symphony was a triumph of balance and raw energy in the young conductor’s hands, and after the rousing finale, the audience wouldn’t leave. Shouts of “Encore!” were hurled, and after several call-backs, Harth-Bedoya broke down and led his group in the bouncing waltz from Eugene Onegin, the Tchaikovsky opera that closed the festival Sunday afternoon. (In a new innovation, string players now face out toward the audience during curtain calls, a welcoming gesture that allows the whole orchestra to receive the applause head-on.) The majestic Sixth Symphony closed the orchestral series with Harth-Bedoya totally immersed in the haunting conclusion. The audience waited patiently as the conductor stood lost in reverie with his baton in the air long after the music faded away.

Harth-Bedoya used scores for the early symphonies but not the last three, which bubbled with enthusiasm and showed the orchestra in top form, with some of the most demanding music in the repertory. The French horns in particular were light-years ahead of last season, and the strings seemed more lush and flexible. The woodwind choir still tends to enter strongly in quieter moments, but individual solos were right on.

There was more innovation in the configuration of the stage for Onegin on Sunday afternoon. In this semi-staged version — with no scenery, dancers, or active chorus — the singers’ action was limited to a postage-stamp platform center stage. The musician’s pit was raised to orchestra floor level, and two rows of seats had been removed to house the strings and conductor in front of the stage. Woodwinds were set up on stage right, and the brass and timpani stage left. Upstage were what looked like 200 choristers perched on bleachers.

James Alexander’s intelligent staging, and Jay Isham’s remarkable lighting allowed the drama to unfold with surprising ease in the cramped space left for the singers. Onegin is essentially an intimate drama. Pushkin’s novel set to music follows the unraveling of a bored young aristocrat who spurns the love of a country lass, Tatyana, kills his best friend in a duel, and then wanders the world in search of novelty. He returns only to fall in love with Tatyana, now a fashionable lady married to a St. Petersburg prince. Onegin finally throws himself at her feet asking forgiveness. She acknowledges that she cares deeply but that it’s too late. She leaves him in his agony to return to her husband and to deal with her own pain.

Philip Cutlip, heard last year as a splendid Prophet in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, was a properly remote Onegin, turned in on himself and wrestling with his demons. His smooth baritone is full and dark and ideally suited for Russian opera. Cutlip could well make this a signature role. Francesco Petrozzi was also a more than satisfying Lensky, the friend who’s eventually killed, with a stout, if uneven, tenor that he showed off on the high notes.

With its uncomplicated vocal line and comfortable range, the role of Tatyana is often favored by veteran sopranos. The drawback is that Tatyana is a young woman. Sandra Lopez sang here with the requisite youth and beauty, in a serviceable voice that tended to spread under stress. Her sister Olga, sung by Alison Tupay, shared the same characteristics. Mezzo-soprano Rose Taylor was impressive as the girl’s mother and made you wish there was more for her to do.

The enormous chorus was surprisingly clean and flexible for so large a group and added greatly to the performance. But it was Harth-Bedoya who shone. After a slow start, he brought the last two acts together with a dramatic sweep that belied the miniature setting and reinforced the impression that he is fast becoming a major operatic conductor.

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