Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin
Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013
Valery Gergiev, Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw, Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecień, Oksana Volkova, Piotr Beczala, Elena Zaremba, Larissa Diadkova, John Graham-Hall, Alexei Tanovitski, David Crawford, Richard Bernstein
The Met: Live in HD - 5th October 2013
No matter how many times the story is told, no matter how simple that story seems to be on the surface, there always seems to be something new you can draw out of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, a fact that testifies to its reputation as being a supreme work of art. The artistry of the opera was in evidence in some aspects of the Met's new 2013 production season opener - broadcast live in HD to cinemas across the world - but in others it didn't quite live up to the high expectations we've come to expect from Tchaikovsky's masterpiece or the strengths in it that have been recognised in other recent productions.
Musically, everything was in place with Valery Gergiev drawing a muscular performance out of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, sensitive to the distinctly Russian rhythms and tones of the work. Grandly romantic and at the same time intimate, any sense of sentimentality or wishy-washiness would be fatal to the work (particularly in this production), but there wasn't a trace of it here. As if to emphasise this robust performance, the Met's chorus were also in fine voice, bringing their presence to bear on each of the scenes where they appear, alerting the viewer to the fact that they are there for more than just mere decoration, but are an integral part of the Russian character of the work and the society.
What was also apparent when conducted in this way is how much the characters develop throughout Eugene Onegin and how the story - which on the surface is simple enough - develops in accordance with the growth of each of the characters. Circumstances force each of the main characters - Tatiana, Onegin and Lenski - to reflect on their situation at various points, principally in their monologues, which they come out from as different people. For Tatiana, it's the crushing humiliation of Onegin's response to her love letter in Act I, for Lenski it's the reflection on the golden days of his youth as he faces death in a duel in Act II, and for Onegin it all comes much too late in Act III. In a very Russian way however, all of the characters feel compelled to play out their fates, Tatiana as much as Onegin, already aware as soon as she places pen to paper that she's writing her future one way or the other.
Like the characters, the opera also grows and accumulates greater force, meaning and significance as it reaches each of those points and builds towards its devastating conclusion. Unfortunately, the Met's production by Deborah Warner, directed here by Fiona Shaw, seemed determined to undercut each of those important three act moments with ill-advised physical contact between the characters, when they should really be alone in their own world. Act I bewilderingly ended with Onegin kissing Tatiana after rejecting her, Act II featured an unlikely brotherly embrace between the two combatants of a duel of honour, and Act III climaxed with a passionately reciprocated kiss from Tatiana after she deals the defeated Onegin his fatal blow. No, no and no. None of it made any sense in terms of the drama or in terms of what the music is expressing.
Aside from these appalling missteps, there wasn't much to recommend in the production as a whole either. Tom Pye's sets were functional and representational of the Larin estate and Gremin ballroom in St Petersberg. The Polonaise and the Ecossaise that have been put to good use in other productions as connecting interludes for the passage of years between the duel scene and Onegin's return many years later to St Petersberg, were wasted here as mere background dance music to the ball in Act III. Compared to recent productions of the opera from Kasper Holten's dancers at the Royal Opera House, Stefan Herheim's huge tapestry of Russian life in the Amsterdam production, Krzysztof Warlikowski's queer reading of the work for Munich or indeed the Met's previous version employing Robert Carsen's seasonal light-box, this was a very drab and uninspired production that had neither the epic qualities nor the intimacy that the work should achieve.
With some minor or perhaps not so minor reservations, the singing however almost made it all worthwhile. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that the Met's opening production was almost entirely constructed to be a showpiece (yet again) for Anna Netrebko, and if the production didn't entirely live up to expectations, the same can't be said about Netrebko. The Russian soprano has been taking some good advice, or perhaps just letting her own voice tell her when it was ready to leave behind the bel canto roles and start to tackle some of the darker dramatic repertoire. The combination of a youthful innocent appearance with maturity of voice and expression for Tatiana is a difficult balance to achieve in one singer but Anna Netrebko has it all in looks, in voice and in acting ability, her burnished dark timbre soaring through those intensely dramatic moments with the sincerity of feeling that the role needs.
Despite the billing, this was no diva star-turn either, and Netrebko gave as much in her performance to all those sharing the stage with her. Some of them however weren't quite up to her stature, and unfortunately for the success of the production as a whole, that includes Mariusz Kwiecień's Onegin. There was little wrong with his singing, Kwiecień clearly a strong performer who is more than capable for the role, but he just didn't have the personality or character to be an Onegin opposite Anna Netrebko. I don't think the confused direction did him any favours either. Elsewhere however, the singing performances were just superb. Piotr Beczala is becoming a house favourite at the Met, and deservedly so. Whether he has great personality of his own or not, he's a fine singer in the classic tenor mould and capable of great beauty in his expression, bringing the necessary quality to those key emotional moments and famous arias. For Lenski, that's 'Kuda, kuda vï udalilis', and Beczala's delivery of it was heartfelt and beautiful.
Oksana Volkova was an impressive Olga and there were even solid, shining contributions from Elena Zaremba's Madame Larina and from Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna. John Graham-Hall's Monsieur Triquet was however just bewildering, his role overworked in the context of the opera to little real effect. Sadly, it was this kind of misplaced emphasis that contributed to the imbalance between the work, the music and the dramatic presentation of its real human qualities. Combined with the lack of any real insight or ideas this Eugene Onegin was far from being totally satisfactory, but all the same there was nothing here to take the shine off Anna Netrebko's impressive venture into the new territory and future greatness.