In 2008 I saw Opera San Jose’s production of Eugene Onegin twice – they double-cast their productions and I wanted to hear both casts. I enjoyed it, but I don’t recall becoming emotionally involved, and it did not leave much of an impression. Although that was less than 3 years ago, I remembered only the rough outline of the plot. Thus, I had an open mind when I walked into the CinéArts theater in Palo Alto to see the Met HD production starring Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I was bowled over.
The first few notes of the overture reminded me that this opera by Tchaikovsky was musically very different from the diet of Italian, French, and German operas that I was used to. The descending notes in a minor key foretold unutterable sadness and sorrow that could only be Russian.
Her biography in Wikipedia indicates that Ms. Fleming recently entered her second half-century, but that appealing young girl we saw on the big screen looked and acted more like my teen-age granddaughter. Along with her mature soprano voice it was quite a combination.
When she finished her famous Letter Song in Scene 2, not only was there loud and long applause from the live audience in New York, but a substantial proportion of the audience in the Palo Alto theater enthusiastically joined them. It may seem ridiculous to applaud a movie screen, but I couldn’t help myself.
After the San Jose performance, and again last night, I felt that Onegin was the victim of a bum rap for his actions in Scene 3. I mean, here he is, rich, handsome (with a terrific baritone voice), twenty years old, and independent. He gets this impassioned love letter from a beautiful teen-age girl who has just seen him for the first time, and what does he do? Does he act like Don Giovanni or The Duke of Mantua or Pinkerton? No. He says honestly, “Look, kid. I’m not good enough for you. If I felt like marrying anyone you’d be first in line, but I ain’t the marrying kind. In two years we’d both be miserable, so good luck and good bye.”
(It sounds better in Russian and it sounds much better when sung by Mr. Hvorostovsky, but you get the general idea.) Given those circumstances, I hope I would be more tactful, but I’d basically react the same way. Wouldn’t you?
Early in Act II Lenski drags him to Tatiana’s name-day ball. Onegin is bored and annoyed so he decides to tease Lenski by flirting with his fiancée, Olga. Okay at first, but instead of backing off gracefully when Lenski over-reacts, he takes it a step further, thus leading to the fight at the ball and the duel next morning.
In Scene 2 each man indicates to the audience that he wishes he hadn’t gotten into this spot. Lenski (sung by Ramón Vargas) with a beautiful tenor aria; Onegin somewhat more briefly. However, they continue to act like children and end up showing us why children shouldn’t be allowed to play with guns.
Several years have passed. Onegin has traveled the world over without finding happiness. Tatiana has matured into a beautiful self-possessed confident young woman and is married to the elderly Prince Gremin. The Prince ( Sergei Aleksashkin) sings a stunning bass aria to tell Onegin that love knows no age limits and that he is deeply and passionately in love with his wife of two years. Onegin does not tell the Prince a thing, but whereas he had felt benevolently scornful towards the teen-age Tatiana-that-was, he has fallen instantaneously into love-at-first-sight with the mature Tatiana-that-is. After all others have retired for the night, they meet. Those are the facts.
In my admittedly unreliable memory of the San Jose performance, Tatiana does not return that love but derives a certain amount of pleasure in playing tit for tat with Onegin for his earlier rejection of her.
In my presumably more accurate memory of last night’s Met HD performance, she admits that she still loves him, but . . . Whereas Onegin has lost all touch with reality and wants to spend the rest of his life gazing at her adoringly, Tatiana faces the fact that she "belongs to" (i. e. is married to) another man and that her honor means more than her happiness. She walks out of the room singing, “good luck and good bye” and he faces the falling curtain with a look of hopeless despair.
And so I end with the same words I began:
Is it me?
Is it this particular production?
Is it Met HD?
Whatever is, it’s part of why I sign myself,
The Opera Nut
All photos: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera
Copyright© 2006 ken howard/metropolitan opera • all rights reserved
1 This performance went off much more smoothly than the Romeo and Juliet I reported on two weeks ago. There was one glitch in the film near the end of Act I, Scene 2, but the management caught it right away. They stopped the film, turned the house lights on for less than 5 minutes, and resumed showing with no further problems. Several patrons found that 2 hours, 40 minutes was still too long to go without a bathroom break. Possibly because I chose my seat on the side away from the door, I was not as distracted by their goings and comings a I had been last time.
2 The July issue of Opera News has a couple of nice articles starting on page 14 on the Met HD series, now 4 years old, and on the Emerging Pictures which shows HD broadcasts from several European theaters. To read these on line, click on http://www.operanews.com/operanews/templates/issue.aspx
and on each of the first two thumbnails that come up.
3 Met HD Summer Encore Series future productions:
Wed at 6:30* Opera Running Time
7/14 La Boheme 2:10
7/21 Turandot 2:05
7/28 Carmen 2:50
* Also shown in most theaters the next day, Thursday 10:00 AM;
in CinéArts theater in Palo Alto, at 1:30 PM
4 For information about Emerging Pictures HD currently scheduled in your neighborhood, click on
and enter your zip code and maximum tolerable distance on the top line. Some venues are very last minute about scheduling, so keep coming back to this address.