Tchaikovsky’s most popular and best opera, Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин), opened this season at the Met. It was telecast on Oct 5, 2013. But I didn’t get around to it until today. This new production had a troubled delivery. Deborah Warner was in charge of it, but had to pull out a month before opening night to undergo surgery. The direction of Warner’s production was assigned to Fiona Shaw who because of a previous commitment was not at the Met over the two weeks (except for one day) preceding opening night. This directorial uncertainty doubtless contributed to the mixed feelings that some critics had about the production at it premiere – September 23. The telecast was the fourth performance and things seemed to have settled.
Eugene Onegin clearly shows Tchaikovsky’s strengths and difficulties as a composer of opera. He composed opera throughout his career, but never fully mastered the art form the way he mastered the symphony and ballet. His problem was that he didn’t always maintain dramatic focus. His sense of theater was below that of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, or Puccini. He could never make the drama explode the way the supreme masters of opera could or the way he could in an orchestral work. Of course, he was a genius and Onegin was the summit of his operatic achievement. The tenor aria, Kuda, kuda vï udalilis (Куда, куда вы удалились, весны моей златые дни), shows why he is one of music’s greatest melodists.
This staging moves the time to about 1870, about the time Tchaikovsky composed the opera. To a non-Russian this makes no difference. I found the sets fine. The first scene which is in the garden of the Laras’ country house seemed to be in a sun porch that was bright and glistening with simple lines that suggested the Danish Modern of the fifties. The mostly conventional sets and staging suited the opera and allowed its principals to realize their roles.
The big attraction, of course, was the Met’s Diva of the moment – Anna Netrebko. She seems to be comfortably settled into early middle age, chubby but glamorous. She was petulant in the first act, puzzled in the second, and regal in the last. Her voluptuous voice was perhaps a little too powerful for the teenager she is in the first two acts, but was perfect for the emotional demands of the Letter Scene. Here she feels no one understands her – a sure sign that everyone does. People are pretty much the same. But if Tatania did not feel herself uniquely misunderstood we wouldn’t have this wonderful scene
Netrebko seems ready and even ideal for the big Verdi roles. Her recent CD entitled Verdi shows she realizes where her voice is taking her. Her sound is rich, full, and even throughout its range – not to mention beautiful.
This is a total digression; feel free to skip it. But no matter how old I get, I can’t stop making clinical observations. It now appears that every female in the Western World who has had 100 menstrual cycles has to have cosmetic surgery on her periorbital tissues. It’s like a cast mark or the tattoos that Russian mobsters have. You could call it a form of ritual mutilation as it does not make a forty year old woman look younger, it just makes her look like a 40 year old woman who’s had her eyes done. But it’s also a status symbol. If one woman’s eye job is better than another’s then the one with the better surgeon outranks the other. Netrebko’s eye surgery was clearly better than any other woman on stage. And all of them had their eyes fixed. Oksana Volkova, Olga, clearly is outranked by Netrebko. So, of course, her eyes were just a bit too tight. I think some of these cosmetic surgeons will take food stamps, so ubiquitous is this surgery. Netrebko has also been botoxed. Her face is as smooth as an unskinned apple. End of digression.
The opera is called Eugene Onegin, but he’s not that interesting a guy. There’s probably a dozen or more diagnoses in DSM V that would fit him, but smug will do. He’s bored, doesn’t want what he can have, but really wants what he can’t have. He’s the prototype for the rest of Russian literature. Mariusz Kwiecien is handsome, and looks the part even though he’s 15-20 years older than Onegin. His light baritone voice suited the music, mostly not that interesting, that Tchaikovsky wrote for the character.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was very good as the young poetaster Lensky who impetuously and fatally challenges his friend to a duel. They fight with rifles. Was the Met out of pistols or was bear a secondary target? As good as Beczala was his voice has lost some of the smoothness and shine it had a few years ago. There’s a YouTube video from 2009 with him singing the second act aria with a finer and brighter instrument than he now has. Lensky is a good role for a tenor, but it’s hard to get one for a character who dies in the second act. Baritones can die in the second act (eg Scarpia), but tenors don’t like premature mortality. It’s why Richard Tucker gave up the role after one season. “My public doesn’t like to see me die in the second act,” was his frank explanation for his abandoning the role. Another example of the higher the voice, the smaller the brain.
Prince Gremin appears only in the third act. His sole purpose is to sing the gorgeous bass aria Любви все возрасты покорны (All men surrender to love’s power). Unfortunately Alexei Tanovitski was woefully overparted. He could barely get the words out, much less do justice to the beautiful tune. I can’t fathom why the Met cast him in the role.
The reminder of the cast was up to the Met’s usual high standard. Valery Gergiev gave a passionate and batonless reading of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. A fashion note; he wore a suit and tie as is appropriate for a matinee performance. The orchestra, as usual, was inappropriately attired in black tie. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was perfect; it was completely unobtrusive. In summary, an excellent performance of a great (but not greatest) opera. Another example of Netrebko’s star status was that she shared the final curtain call with Kwiecien. They both came out together. The title character is supposed to come out alone and last.
Now for the language bit. The September 2013 Opera News has Netrebko on its cover and features a long and copiously illustrated interview with her – The Age of Anna. I just read it. I get a lot of magazines and it takes a while for each to get to top of the pile. The interview begins with La Netrebko dropping an F bomb: “I’m sorry – at the end, I would f..k the guy!” She’s referring to Onegin and there are no dashes in the original. Since I haven’t gotten past the September number of ON I don’t yet know the reaction to her statement. But ON may well be in Miss Littlewood’s 6th grade music appreciation class where the tykes may be getting, to Miss Littlewood’s horror, a new take on opera. The language point is that four letter words no longer shock our cultural nobility who have been desensitized by the numbing effect of an elite education which is why the editors of ON chose to print the quotation as it was delivered. These are the same people who are driven to lexical paroxysms, contortions, gyrations, and spasms over the unapproved use of the third person singular. They would rather say f–k than he or him. I won’t mention the other words that will drive them past the border of syntactical sanity. Times change, as do the words that offend. But the ability of words to cause outrage remains, as does hypocrisy.
Finally, remember Dimitri Mitropoulos’ dictum: God gives voices to stable boys.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky–Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky/Konstantin Shilovsky/Alexander Pushkin
Eugene Onegin………..Mariusz Kwiecien
Prince Gremin………..Alexei Tanovitski
Offstage voice……….David Lowe
Stage Director……….Fiona Shaw
Set Designer…………Tom Pye
Costume Designer……..Chloe Obolensky
Lighting Designer…….Jean Kalman
Video Designer……….Finn Ross
Video Designer……….Ian William Galloway
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson