10 Oct 2013 Eugene Onegin disappoints
The company’s new production of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece is cramped and cheap, leaving the listener longing for a return of the 1997 version
The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose to open its 2013-14 season with a new production (in cooperation with the English National Opera) of Tchaikovsky’s most popular vocal work, Eugene Onegin. The production is a drab and claustrophobic affair — one the Met did not need. It was mounted for its star soprano, Anna Netrebko, who proved ill-suited to her role as Tatiana, the teenager who falls in love with the older, caddish Onegin.
The Met’s previous production of Onegin was all light, atmosphere, and swirling leaves. It surged with passion. The largely empty stage afforded the dancers — and among the glories of this score are Tchaikovsky’s dances — with plenty of room to waltz. That previous production translated well both in the opera house and in the HD simulcast relay.
In contrast, the current production is cramped and cheap. The entire first act is played out in some sort of potter’s shed on the Larin estate in Russia. The stage is cut in half horizontally by a faux glass wall, pushing all the action to the front of the stage. Through the glass the audience can see birch trees heavy with green leaves. If only the audience could have been back there, outdoors with the birches.
The second scene of the first act is pivotal to the plot. It should be set in Tatiana Larin’s bedroom, where the feverish girl composes her anguished letter to Onegin confessing her love. Instead, it was played in the same potter’s shed, with Tatiana finally falling asleep on the floor next to a rickety table.
The cramped frame of the shed also serves as the scene for the Act Two party celebrating Tatiana’s name-day. In such a dowdy setting, the famous Waltz that opens this act went for little because there was no waltzing, just some foolish stage business with dancers wearing animal masks.
Not until the duel in the second scene of the act, where Onegin kills his former friend Lenski, does this production begin to rival its predecessor in atmosphere. The despondent Lenski is sitting on a fallen branch of a birch tree, from which position he sings his aria Where or where have you gone, golden days of my youth? The setting is cold, gloomy, and despairing. In short, it fits.
A little grandeur arrives in Act Three when the action moves to a palace in St. Petersburg and Tatiana’s new life with her husband, Prince Gremin. Nine white columns dominate the set, and while they interfere with the dancing required in the score, at least the costumes rise to the dazzling Met standard.
The last scene, in which Onegin admits to Tatiana that he has been a boob and begs her to accept him, should be played inside Tatiana’s residence. Here it is set outside during a St. Petersburg snowstorm. This stage picture would work splendidly for Tchaikovsky’s other great opera, The Queen of Spades, for the scene along the Winter Canal when Liza commits suicide in despair over her gambler boyfriend. But it makes little sense as the finale to Onegin.
At this point I realized that Netrebko should have been singing Liza (in The Queen of Spades), and not Tatiana. Liza is an enigmatic character. The part makes few dramatic demands and it suits her still creamy middle and upper register. But Netrebko is no Tatiana. She doesn’t have the acting chops to become a convincing teenager in puppy love. Throughout the first act, one could see her thinking: “Move the arm here, walk there, look up, turn the face left.” It was painful.
In the first scene of Act Two Netrebko simply disappeared in the swirl of the birthday party. Wearing a shapeless dull dress, she could have been a Larin family servant. Her expression suggested more boredom than unrequited love.
Without an enchanting and believable Tatiana at its center, this opera loses its considerable charm.
The production did have some nice minor touches. Projections of wheat fields and forests were effective as curtain raisers. A lovely sunrise awoke Tatiana from her sleep in the shed. Netrebko actually resembled her sister Olga, which heightened their relationship. (Olga was performed winningly by a fellow Russian, Oksana Volkova.) When Onegin is unhinged by seeing how elegant the adult, married Tatiana has become, he snatches an entire bottle of champagne, and not just a glass, during the St. Petersburg ball. But these were not many minutes of pleasure during an opera that stretched to four hours but should have been three.
At least we had a splendid Lenski in the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. His open, handsome, beaming face (at least until Onegin insults him in Act Two) made him a convincing young lover of Olga. He delivered both his major arias with beautiful, even tone and ample volume. He had almost enough juice in his voice to make his cry of the heart in Act Two over Olga’s behavior thrilling, although both Ramon Vargas and Neil Shicoff were more powerful in this essential moment.
The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has neither the imposing physique nor the menacing voice to make Onegin the villain he is. Tatiana’s infatuation with him was hard to understand. His anger didn’t come from his core. He was Onegin lite. Given Netrebko’s wooden Tatiana, few sparks flew between the two. Kwiecien at the Met has given a much better account of himself in comic roles such as Belcore in The Elixir of Love. Perhaps those parts better suit his personality. In short, bring back Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role — forever.
Larissa Diadkova put her veteran, powerful, plummy mezzo to good use as Tatiana’s nanny, Filippyevna. Every syllabus she sang was filled with Russian authority.
As Triquet, the French teacher, John Graham-Hall showed a pleasant and accurate high tenor voice in delivering the little serenade to Tatiana at her party. Why he was wearing an old-fashioned knee brace that forced him into some awkward postures (I feared for his aching back) was never made clear in the production. The brace was so big that at first I thought he was on stilts.
Elena Zaremba has little to do as Tatiana’s mother, but she did it well and with her usual elegance. Alexei Tanovitski was the appropriately serious Prince Gremin, although his bass voice was a bit unstable, and the low notes might have been blacker.
Valery Gergiev, without doubt the leading conductor of the Russian repertoire on the world stage, did not disappoint. He led a stately performance, heavy with basses and cellos. The horns did good work for him. He delivered all the bon-bon dance numbers with panache. The energy in the pit never flagged despite some of the boredom on stage.
The team of Deborah Warner (listed as in charge of the production) and Fiona Shaw (stage director) deserve the blame for this clunker. One could readily believe The New York Times story that Shaw was rarely around to actually direct this show, so Netrebko’s shortcomings may not be all her fault. She and Kwiecien seem to have been left to their own dramatic instincts.
The lesson here is that when you have a splendid, beloved production of an opera such as Eugene Onegin, keep it. Spend your money elsewhere. It doesn’t grow on birch trees.