Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Metropolitan Opera/Valery Gergiev (DG)
Anna Netrebko’s Tatyana has been a long time coming. Ever since I first saw her, with her elfin, Audrey Hepburn looks, perched on a balcony as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, she struck me as my ideal Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. That was in July 2000, when the Kirov Opera was touring Covent Garden in one of Valery Gergiev’s gargantuan seasons, of which Andrei Konchalovsky’s production was the highlight. Netrebko, with her warm lyric soprano, seemed destined for the great Russian roles, but during the intervening years distanced herself from her ‘home repertoire’ to concentrate on bel canto. As her voice darkened, moving into Verdi (Lady Macbeth is scheduled for Munich and New York later this year), the Fair Maid of Krasnodar kept us waiting. The glimpses of the role she flashed temptingly before us – a heartbreaking Letter Scene on disc and a scorching final duet with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in concert – only heightened impatience. Finally, 2013 saw her first Tatyana, in Vienna, also opposite Hvorostovsky, before performing the role for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s current season.
Deborah Warner’s glossy new production had already been seen at English National Opera, but underwent a change of Act I scenery in the transatlantic crossing. In a setting contemporary to Tchaikovsky’s composition of his ‘seven lyric scenes’ Tom Pye’s barn had been replaced with a greenhouse, with some 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 girl is rejected amid a display of harvest vegetables! Mind you, Robert Carsen’s stylish production, which the current one replaced, saw Renée Fleming scribbling her letter at a desk surrounded by a carpet of golden autumn leaves.
Warner stages the duel scene on a frozen lake with accompanying mists swirling evocatively (beautiful lit by Jean Kalman), and Kim Brandstrup’s choreography has the peasants’ chorus was exuberantly danced and the set-piece waltz, polonaise and écossaise are dispatched with panache. The grand columns and lacquered floor for the St Petersburg set drew looks stunning, while the transition to outdoor scene for Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin amidst a light dusting of snow is particularly effective. The only serious beef I have with Warner’s staging is the lingering, passionate kiss Tatyana plants on Onegin after she dismisses him at the opera’s end. It mirrors the kiss Onegin offers at the end of Act I – hardly ‘brotherly’ – and is entirely at odds with both the dramatic situation and the music, holding up Tchaikovsky’s score for nearly a minute.
Valery Gergiev conducts a passionate account of the score, much of it taken very slowly, which increased feelings of intensity, but also dragged some scenes out. He also conducts on the Decca Blu-ray of Carsen’s production, although his tempos are marginally broader here. There are a few co-ordination problems in the opening quartet, otherwise the Met Orchestra plays quite gloriously for him, the warm cello sound introducing Lensky’s aria a particular highlight, as is the imperious brass introducing the familiar Polonaise.
The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień has enormous experience in the title role and plays the cad well in Acts I and II. He showed a nippy pair of heels in the waltz at the Larins’, but wisely ducks out of the cotillon’s 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 is in fine fettle early on, his tone warm rather than frosty for “Kogda bi zhizn domashnim krugom” – letting her down gently? – but Kwiecień falls into the trap of forcing his voice too hard when singing forte. 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 sings 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. Larissa Diadkova’s fruity contralto makes for an excellent Filippyevna, while Elena Zaremba (Olga for Carsen just seven years ago!) is a restrained Madame Larina. Oksana Volkova is less vivacious than some mezzos as Olga, but still capable of drawing sympathy. The Prince Gremin of Alexei Tanovitski’s woolly timbre makes Prince Gremin less successful.
And what of Tatyana? In Act I, Netrebko tames her natural exuberance 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 are 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, Netrebko conveys 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 is exquisite here, dawn gradually breaking. Netrebko is 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 helps 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.
Her Tatyana takes 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 seems very much in character. The confident, aristocratic Tatyana of Act III is meat and drink to Netrebko, especially when luxuriously clad in red velvet. Her final encounter with Onegin sees 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”, crowning her performance with a thrilling top B. She could easily have been the reigning Tatyana of the past decade.
It’s a close call between Warner and Carsen in terms of Met productions on DVD and Blu-ray. Renée Fleming’s Tatyana is arguably too mature, but then the 2007 performance does boast Hvorostovsky’s magisterial Onegin. Kwiecień’s anti-hero is hardly less fine, but it’s Netrebko’s Tatyana which is the main draw here, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin – Mariusz Kwiecień, Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała et al; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev (DG Blu-ray 073 5115)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Renée Fleming, Ramon Vargas et al; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev (Decca Blu-ray 074 3298)
This review originally appeared in IRR.