The Onegin score isn't entirely unknown, and has even been recorded. But the version heard at Richardson Auditorium was complete and heard in its intended context: a series of Krzhizhanovsky-adapted monologues delivered by actors in Russian. Though Prokofiev's operas show what a musical dramatist he could be, so does the hour-long Onegin score, in plainer terms - and with the perspective that comes with being attached to this familiar literary property, the story of a young country girl who falls hopelessly in love with a bored, penniless sophisticate.
Also, the classic Tchaikovsky opera version looms significantly in the background: It wasn't earthy enough for Prokofiev, who had his own brand of cosmopolitan urbanity but harbored a taste for peasant polkas that figure into this score (as well as his famous Lt. Kije Suite). But the score's most memorable aspects are its lyrical ones. Some of the best melodies reappeared, in more evolved form, in his later opera War and Peace.
The performance came with a lots of add-ons. One part of the Richardson Auditorium balcony was given over to the Princeton University Glee Club for choral moments that clearly were cut from similar cloth as Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky film score, though with a less aggressive aspect. A corps of ballroom dancers was welcome during the Onegin party scenes. Given how naturally balletic the music is, other parts were more formally choreographed by Rebecca Lazier. And to think that Prokofiev's great Romeo and Juliet ballet was initially considered undanceable.
An eccentric postscript was a contribution by the composer's grandson, Gabriel Prokofiev, in the form of a Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra. The very idea sounds crazy in light of the limitations in such a ham-fisted instrument. However, the composer created melodies by incorporating rim shots into the rhythm as well as some atmospheric moments by bowing the drum's membrane. The "concertante" tension between soloist and orchestra arose mostly from cross-rhythms with the ensemble. And the kind of orchestral writing required to do that felt anti-intuitive for the Princeton Symphony's string players, who played valiantly under Rossen Milanov.
The concerto probably needs a good long workshop with some German radio orchestra to determine how these instruments can meet more sensibly.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.