To open their 2013-2014 season, the Metropolitan Opera of New York deployed a familiar strategy for success: big stars, a big-name conductor, and a crowd-pleasing opera. This year, the choice for opening night was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin's novel. For the third year on the row, the chosen star to open the Met's season was soprano Anna Netrebko, singing the lead role of Tatiana for the first time at the Met. The opera was also chosen to open the new season of the Met's Live in HD transmissions, which I had a chance to attend on October 5.
One reason for Eugene Onegin's enduring popularity, I suspect, is that its story is one of the more believable in all of opera, thanks in no small part to its roots in Pushkin's work. The story is one that is unmistakably linked to 19th-century Russian literature and culture. The story is sprawling, without any one central character; despite the fact that the opera is named for Onegin, he is by no means the sole protagonist. As I watched the opera, it occurred to me that its three acts could be named after the central characters. The first act could be called “Tatiana”(Netrebko), after the melancholic young girl who longs, spurred by romantic ideals fueled by reading novels (think Emma Bovary here), to find a perfect romance with Onegin; the second act could be called “Lenski” (tenor Piotr Beczala), after the character who, spurred by absurdly romantic ideals, challenges Onegin to a duel out a fit of pique and is needlessly killed; and the final act could be named for the title character (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), the rakish protagonist who finally realizes the now-married Tatiana, only to be rebuffed. Certainly, Tchaikovsky gives the most exciting vocal parts to Tatiana, whose first act “Letter Scene,” composed before the rest of the opera and almost a mini-opera within the larger work, is one of the greatest set pieces in opera. Lenski also fares better than the title character, with the passionate denunciation of his betrothed, Tatiana's sister Olga (mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova), as well as his provocation of Onegin that leads to their duel, before which he sings a long aria lamenting the disappearance of past happiness and his resignation over his impending, though essentially unnecessary doom. Also notable is the third act aria by Prince Gremin, the nobleman that Tatiana marries (bass Alexi Tanovitski), where he celebrates the love that he has found with his new bride. Onegin is more of a fulcrum around which the events happen; he's always there, always setting things in motion (even if he doesn't try to), but we see his effect on others, rather than his own story, until we see his emotional change and his tragic fate.
The cast for the Met's Onegin was quite strong, probably the strongest cast I've seen in a Met opera to date. Of course, one cannot discuss this company without discussing its biggest star, Anna Netrebko. It would seem that Tatiana is a natural role for the Russian diva, but she has just come to the role, which is not as demanding as her usual bel canto repertoire, which she says she is now leaving behind her. She has a strong dramatic presence, and though she doesn't really look like the part of the gentrified Tatiana-she has the voice of an aristocrat but the face of a beautiful peasant girl-she is nevertheless quite well-suited to the role. As the young romantic, Lenski, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala is in fine voice, particularly in his dramatic expression both the passionate and tragic aspects of his character, though he looks like a silent-film idol instead of a nineteenth-century young Russian male. Met favorite Mariusz Kwiecien is a fine Onegin; this is another role that's not especially demanding vocally, but is dramatically, and Kwiecien was apparently restrained from the hammy antics that usually characterize his performances, though at times you could see him trying to break them out. The new production by Deborah Warner was a traditional one, something we would expect from the Met, especially in a performance designed to headline the Met's season. As I mentioned earlier, it's hard to place Onegin outside of 19th-century bourgeois Russia, and I was glad Warner didn't move it anywhere in time or location. Finally, a word about the conducting of maestro Valery Gergiev. It was jarring to have just seen Gergiev in person, conducting his Mariinksy Orchestra in Chicago, three nights before this matinee performance in New York; almost as jarring was how moderated the performance was at the Met compared to the one of Stravinsky a few nights before. The reasons for the modulation are fairly obvious. First, the Met orchestra is not Gergiev's own, the way the Mariinsky is; second, a Tchaikovsky score is far less radical than a Stravinsky score; finally, the Met, as I have mentioned, is a place that tends to resist radical interpretations or, for that matter, repertoire. It was almost as if Gergiev was saying to the audience, “Yes, I can conduct a score this way, but my inclinations are otherwise.”
Eugene Onegin, the Metropolitan Opera's first Live in HD broadcast, will be encored in cinemas on Wednesday, October 9, at 6:30 PM local time. Please visit the Metropolitan Opera Website for further details.
Note: The HD transmission of Eugene Onegin that I attended had the last part of the last scene wiped out due to a severe rain storm cutting off the satellite that broadcast the opera to the theater, so I did not see it, but I saw the vast majority of the opera, including what amounts to essentially all its important moments (except a couple minutes at the end.)
Photo of Netrebko and Kwiecen: Lee Broomfield/Metropolitan Opera. All other photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.