Marina Poplavskaya as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as the title character of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
On Saturday November 23, the Metropolitan Opera revived its new production of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" with a new cast of superstars.
Latinos Post reviewed the opening night performance and published an extensive analysis of the production. Unlike other revivals (such as the 2009 Tosca) where the second cast singing actors make extensive changes to the staging, this particular rendition followed the stage directions of the earlier run pretty well. Obviously there were personal flourishes and interpretations here and there, but the overall concept was well-sustained.
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One of the major stories heading into the performance was the return of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon after being absent from the Met for five season. He last performed in "Lucia Di Lammermoor" in 2009 alongside soprano Anna Netrebko. The moment Villazon made his entrance as Lenski in Act 1 he was greeted with warm applause from the audience. He responded to the warm welcome with a powerful rendition of the tragic poet that reminded audiences of what made him a house favorite a few seasons ago. Villazon's voice, which seemingly had a darker timbre the last time he performed at the Met, has a brighter and more delicate quality. There are still darker hues, particularly in the middle and lower voices, but the upper ranges have a more graceful and sweeter timbre. In comparison with the other characters on stage Villazon's Lenski was a more wistful personality and his energy expressed a complete surrender into the beauties of life. He flirted and frolicked about with Elena Maximova's Olga throughout the Act 1 quartet; it was impossible to look away from them even when Onegin and Tatiana were engaged in conversation.
Despite his energetic demeanor, Villazon's did exhibit timidity during his declaration of love, adding tenderness to the moment. His singing in this particular section was suave and elegant. As he reached the climax of the concluding solo of the duet, the intensity of his singing also emanated throughout his body, adding to the visceral experience of his rendition. Villazon's performance in the first scene of Act 2 was equally potent. His voice's darker qualities took hold throughout this scene and the potency slowly started to reveal itself. As he called Onegin a "vile seducer," Villazon's voice took on a startling complexion that truly expressed his animosity toward his best friend. His final scene, in which he sings the famous "Kuda kuda" was a true showstopper. Villazon started the aria quietly, his body frozen in place. As the aria progressed and the intensity of the melodic line increased, the tenor pushed his voice to the limit; the final phrases sounded as close to sobs as any human voice is capable of expressing. In these final moments, Lenski took out a book of poems that he had written for Olga and held it to his chest with all of his strength; the image of the tragic hero could not be more beautifully rendered.
In the title role, Peter Mattei was an imposing Onegin. His massive size and booming voice made him an awe-inspiring figure, but his portrayal of the unstable anti-hero made the performance truly compelling. As he entered early on in act one, Mattei's Onegin stood by the door in a stoic stance; it gave him an air of isolation and made him intimidating. It also emphasized the contrast between Lenski and Onegin; one character is full of life and energy while the other is cold and distanced. In the original staging, Onegin would sit with Tatiana by a nearby table. Instead, Mattei's Onegin stood in the doorway and conversed with Tatiana from afar; his behavior justified her seeming fear to approach him. His rigid nature also made him a seemingly expressionless figure, but also exuded a sense of self-confidence. At the end of Act 1, Mattei maintained his icy position as he lectured Tatiana. While she sat quietly on stage right, he sat on stage left, emphasizing the great divide between the two. During the first scene of Act 2, his confident demeanor made his teasing of his friend Lenski all the more irritating and conniving. During the confrontation, Mattei remained unnerved, almost as if he was apathetic toward his friend's plight. Even the singing, maintained an overly polished quality that emphasized Onegin's sense of control; there was almost a coolness in phrasing. When Villazon's Lenski ran at him, Mattei, who towers over the Mexican, pushed him away effortlessly almost like an adult would throw aside a small child. The shift in the character's apathy came in second scene of Act 2. As he arrived for the duel, Mattei's Onegin immediately walked over to Lenski and attempted to embrace him. As they prepared to fire at one another, he attempted to wrap his friend in a powerful hug, almost as if begging him to end the madness. Once the deed was done, he rushed over and held the fallen Lenski in his arms sobbing; watering in the eyes was seemingly inevitable in this particular scene.
In Act 3, Mattei's Onegin walked about distraught with a bottle in his arms. He seemed completely lost and disoriented, the confidence dying away. As Prince Gremin re-introduced him to Tatiana, Mattei's Onegin looked about disconcerted as if he could not bear the reality he was enduring. As he declared his love for Tatiana in the final scene of the opera, Mattei threw himself to the floor; his full power of his voice was on display and the singing actor delivered the passage with a desperation that would never have been expected from the man of Act 1. However, the unraveling of the character did not end there. During the final duet, Mattei spent most of his time on the floor begging Tatiana to come back to him. His voice sobbed throughout, the confidence completely shattered and all that was left were the pleas of a man clinging to the last hope of happiness and stability. The final passage, in which he comes to terms with his fate, Mattei delivered a visceral cry of pain and humiliation on the sustained high G before throwing himself to the floor; the potent man from the start was no more and would likely never return.
Portraying the role of Tatiana was Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. The soprano delivered a tremendous rendition of the role which counterpointed Mattei's performance powerfully. From the get-go her Tatiana moved about with her head staring down at the floor; her voice was rather muted and shy throughout the opening of the opera and emphasized the tremendous amount of insecurity in Tatiana. As she dialogued with Onegin during the opening of the quartet, she seemed tentative and scared to approach him. In one powerful moment, she turned toward Lenski and listened in on his declaration of love toward Olga. Tatiana's face, which had already been disconcerted, seemed overwhelmed and frustrated by the romantic fulfillment her sister was experiencing and immediately ran out of the room with her hands covering her ears. During the famous letter scene, Poplavskaya delivered a performance of tremendous vulnerability. There was a tremendous sense of urgency thanks to the tempi that Poplavskaya and conductor Alexander Vedernikov picked for the section but her voice had a guttural quality that added to this sense of desperation. The entirety of the scene came across as a young woman battling her insecurities, but never really managing to overcome. Even during the blissful section in which she questions whether Onegin will be her guardian angel, Poplavskaya sang with a tremendous amount of longing. The final line, in which she declares that she has finished her letter, lacked the conviction that many Tatiana's bring to the moment; instead, it seemed like she knew her fate but was doing her best to find hope.
During the ensuing scene, Poplavskaya's Tatiana was jittery with nerves and even tripped and fell in one moment. Once Onegin entered the room to give his sermon, it was clear that she understood her defeat; throughout the scene she sat frozen in a chair, powerless to do anything. That sense of despair and powerlessness translated to the following scene of Act 2 where Tatiana's birthday celebration felt more like a massive humiliation for the character. A disappointment dominated Tatiana's visage and she remained rather unanimated throughout. During Triquet's song (John Graham-Hall), he has her circle about while standing on a chair; Tatiana looked like an object being showcased rather a person being celebrated. That stiffness and powerless translated powerfully into the final act when Tatiana, full of dignity, seems somewhat detached from the rest of the world; now she seems to be the icy one. However, unlike Onegin's self-imposed detachment, Poplavskaya's Tatiana seemed to be a lost soul with no way to salvation. The contrast between the two characters in the final scene fully expressed the existential of the two characters to its fullest. While Onegin rolled around on the floor like an unhinged savage, Tatiana stood firmly over him. As the duet progressed, her resolve seemed to break ever so slightly and her voice, which was controlled and muted earlier, was pushed to its full expressive boundaries. After delivering her desperate high C, she stood and stared at him longingly over the extended silence. "Will she or won't she?" was the appropriate sub-textual question taking place. She slowly walked over to him, remorse in her eyes, and kissed him tenderly. Moments later she ran off stage in tremendous sorrow.
Elena Maximova was solid in her debut as Olga and had an enviable chemistry with Villazon throughout. In her final moments onstage, Maximova's Olga implored with Lenski to forgive her; she wrapped her arms around him ferociously only to be thrown to the ground. It was impossible not to feel for the jovial youth who caused her own romantic downfall.
Stefan Kocan was an admirable Gremin and sang the famous aria with a refinement and polish; his elegant, earthy voice caressing ever phrase of the glorious declaration of love.
The only major pitfall of the performance was conductor Alexander Vedernikov who was making his debut. It is impossible to know if the quick tempi were the result of nerves, but they were largely ineffective and distracting. There were moments where the action called for the surging speeds (such as the opening of the letter scene which emphasized the erratic emotions of Tatiana), but there were others where it simply harmed the drama onstage. On such moment was the confrontation between Lenski and Onegin in Act 2 Scene 1. As Lenski hurls insults upon insults at Onegin, the orchestra seemed to rush ahead of Villazon uncomfortably. More distracting was Vedernikov's insistence on interrupting the applause after arias.
After the letter scene, the audience gave a rousing applause to Poplavskaya that was cut short by Vedernikov's next cue. The same incident took place after Villazon's rendition of "Kuda kuda." While the desire to move the drama forward is understandable, these decisions by the maestro seemed a bit disrespectful toward the audience and singers. Additionally, the conductor and orchestra did not really seem in sync throughout the evening. The prelude was plagued by slightly late entrances in the violins with audible intonation issues. The energy was lacking in the more climactic moments and the overall reading of the score came off as relatively indifferent; Tchaikovsky is anything but indifferent.
It might seem a bit soon to revive a production just months after its premiere, but the new cast makes this "Eugene Onegin" worthwhile in every respect.