Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin ****
Metropolitan Opera, 5th October 2013
I’ve waited thirteen impatient years for this. Covent Garden, July 2000: the Mariinsky Opera (or the Kirov Opera as it was then titled) rolled into town for a Russian season of Gergievian proportions, the highlight of which was Andrei Konchalovsky’s production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace. Up on her balcony, with Audrey Hepburnesque looks, perched the Natasha of Anna Netrebko, whose singing was beyond captivating. She already had a number of Russian roles under her belt; her debut as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin seemed only a matter of time. And so we waited. Whether advised to distance herself from Russian repertoire for fear of being typecast; whether the focus on bel canto was because she’d been told it would build her technique, who knows, but the Fair Maid of Krasnodar kept us waiting. There have been tantalising glimpses; a Letter Scene on disc and a gripping final duet in concert, opposite Dmitri Hvorostovsky, which only whetted a desire for more. It was only this spring – in Vienna – that Netrebko sang her first Tatyana, again opposite Dima, before opening the Metropolitan Opera’s new HD season. Боже мой, the wait was worth it!
Deborah Warner’s new production had already been seen at English National Opera, where I reviewed it, finding it glossy but ultimately lacking heart, mostly down to the disappointing central performances. Warner has been unable to direct the Met performances, handing over the reins to Fiona Shaw. In a setting contemporary to Tchaikovsky’s composition of his ‘seven lyric scenes’ Tom Pye’s barn of Act I has been replaced with a greenhouse, with some very scenic silver birches thrown in for good Russian measure. Both settings are suitable for the bringing in of the harvest, but both still strike me as odd locations for Tatyana’s bedroom. The poor thing is rejected amid a display of harvest vegetables.
The duel scene, on a frozen lake with accompanying mists swirling evocatively (beautiful lighting from Jean Kalman) works very well, although I question the use of what look like rifles instead of pistols, even when the period is updated from Pushkin’s era to Tchaikovsky’s. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography impressed, the peasants’ chorus was athletically danced and the set-piece waltz, polonaise and écossaise were dispatched with panache. The grand columns and lacquer floor for the St Petersburg set drew no applause – there was at the Coli – while the transition to outdoor scene for Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin amidst a light dusting of snow was particularly effective. Seeing the set changes, however, doesn’t half suck the magic out of the experience (distributing snow – clearing snow – distributing snow again), as do the frequently squirm-inducing interviews. HD host Deborah Voigt was twice put in her place last night: no, Gergiev did not help Netrebko in learning the role of Tatyana and no, Gergiev did not agree that the Polonaise is a light dance.
On the big screen, the St Petersburg gloss worked very well and I am far more positively inclined towards the production this time around, with one serious reservation. Much has been made in the American press of the passionate kiss Tatyana plants on Onegin after she dismisses him at the opera’s end, suggesting it was put in by Netrebko and Kwiecien themselves. Think again, moi drug! That kiss and the one with which Onegin had dismissed Tatyana’s letter in Act I were both Warner’s idea and both still seem utterly wrong. Onegin’s Act I kiss is hardly ‘brotherly’, while the way their full on snog at the end holds up Tchaikovsky’s music for nearly a minute is beyond crass. Although I enjoyed this performance more than in its original ENO incarnation, this misguided directorial decision, along with a few niggles about the singing, is the main reason for withholding that elusive fifth star.
A clean-shaven Valery Gergiev conducted a passionate account of the score, much of it taken very slowly, which increased feelings of intensity, but also dragged some scenes out. This was not the mercurial rendition I’ve heard from him before – an ad hoc concert performance put on as a last minute substitution after singer illness forced the cancellation of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. There were a few co-ordination problems in the opening quartet, otherwise the Met Orchestra played gloriously, the warm cello sound introducing Lensky’s aria a particular highlight.
So what of the singing? Mariusz Kwiecien has enormous experience in the title role and plays the cad well in Acts I and II. As the Polish baritone himself proclaimed in one of the ‘intermission’ interviews, “Onegin is a dog for the ladies!” and he does this rather well in the party at the Larins’. He showed a nippy pair of heels in the waltz, but ducked out of the cotillon – a wise move given its lively choreography. He also displayed Onegin’s ennui well at the St Petersburg ball on his return from self-imposed exile, a boredom fuelled by alcohol. His baritone was in good shape early on, his tone warm rather than frosty for “Kogda bi zhizn domashnim krugom” – letting her down gently? – but Kwiecien again falls into the trap of forcing his voice too hard when singing forte. He did this in the Royal Opera’s Don Carlo last season. His voice is perfectly big enough; by pushing too much, his sound hardens and he moves into a blustery mode which is far less attractive to the ear.
Piotr Beczała sang an open-hearted, open-throated Lensky, whose priggish behaviour at the Larins’ ball made one want to challenge him to a duel just to teach him a lesson. His “Kuda, kuda kuda vi udalilis” was a model of beautifully sustained singing, without the need to resort to crooning.
Smaller roles were variably cast. I liked the fruity contralto of Larissa Diadkova’s Filippyevna, while Elena Zaremba’s Madame Larina was more restrained. Oksana Volkova sang an attractive Olga, less vivacious than some, but still capable of drawing sympathy. The Prince Gremin of Alexei Tanovitski sounded small-voiced and woolly and whoever thought it was a good idea to have John Graham-Hall sing Triquet’s couplets in a quavery, old man voice was plain wrong.
And so to Tatyana. Netrebko successfully tamed her natural exuberant self to depict a convincingly shy, bookish teenager. On first meeting Onegin, she absent-mindedly lets her book drop to the floor. Those first exchanges between them were exquisitely characterised, Onegin’s dismissive line about not being able to sit over books the whole time sparking the notion in Tatyana that the time has come for action.
In a show-stopping Letter Scene, she conveyed that first, uncertain declaration of love perfectly, from the failed scribbled attempts to the look of panic as she realises exactly what she’s done once the letter has been dispatched and it’s too late to undo what is done. Kalman’s lighting was exquisite here, dawn gradually breaking although the full-on blast of sunlight which bathed the audience in its glow at the Coliseum has been tempered. Vocally, Netrebko was on fire in this scene, her luscious, velvety lower register balanced by tender pianissimos, such as the wistful repetition of “Nikogda!” (“Never!”). Moving upstage and out into the moonlight helped her to shade her dynamics for the line “Who are you? My guardian angel or a wily tempter?”, sung with a gorgeous sense of trepidation.
She took Onegin’s rejection standing, eyes downcast, willing the earth to open up and swallow her; that is precisely how Tatyana should feel at that moment, as should the audience on her behalf. Her clumsy acceptance (deliberate?) of the return of her letter seemed very much in character. The confident, aristocratic Tatyana of Act III is meat and drink to Netrebko, especially when clad in red velvet (replacing Amanda Echalaz’s ivory gown at ENO). Her final encounter with Onegin saw her employ a darker tone, with bold caressing of the line as she lectures him, followed by a lovely pianissimo at ‘Happiness was nearly ours’. Her performance was crowned with a thrilling top B. Yes, it was worth the wait. Now, how about Lisa in The Queen of Spades?