Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien as the title character of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
With the celebrity red carpet arrivals, the tumultuous political climate, and the lack of a firm director, it was always slated to be an eventful opening night for the Metropolitan Opera's 2013-14 season. The big question however was whether all of these circumstances would overshadow arguably the most important part of the night - the performance of Tchaikovsky's operatic masterpiece "Eugene Onegin."
The red carpet situation speaks for itself on a number of celebrity websites and will not get any discussion time on this review. For those confused about the political and stage director situation, here is a quick reader's digest. The LGBT community started a petition a few weeks ago asking for the removal of Russian artists Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev from the opening night performance of Tchaikovsky masterwork "Eugene Onegin." Why? Because both Netrebko and Gergiev have shown support for Russia's president Vladimir Putin and the LGBT community is understandably incensed about Putin's recent laws against gays in Russia. The petition also asked the Met to dedicate the performance to the LGBT community in a sign of respect. The Met general manager Peter Gelb responded on a number occasions that his company was not a political one and that the recognition of Tchaikovsky (a gay composer) and other gay performers on its stage was a sign of his support for the LGBT community. Not content with the response, LGBT supporters protested across the street from Lincoln Center on Monday evening. A few managed to get inside the performance and threatened to sabotage it with cries of "Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays" and "Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays." After a rather tense exchange between LGBT supporters and the remainder of annoyed opera goers, the security took out the protesters. Their voices, so loud in the moments and hours leading up to the first pizzicato D in the basses of Tchaikovsky's score, disappeared, never to be heard again for the remainder of the night.
With that crisis averted, the attention finally turned to the stage where the questions loomed large after the New York Times published an article about the difficult staging process for the production of "Eugene Onegin." Original director Deborah Warner had to leave the process due to an emergency surgery and was replaced by her long-time collaborator Fiona Shaw. According to the NY Times, Shaw was not able to oversee the entire rehearsal process due to prior commitments in Glyndebourne. Such directorial instability does not always create the best environment for a cast and it would not have been a surprise if the ensuing performance lacked polish and seemed unfocused in some areas.
However, this was far from the case. Despite, the tension surrounding the big night, the performance of "Eugene Onegin" that took place was arguably the greatest opening night of Gelb's tenure.
Deborah Warner's production is elegant in its visual portrayal coupled with Shaw's direction were powerful in their attention to detail. Each scene is introduced by a projection on the curtain that hints at the environment of the characters and also portrays a title card that indicates the setting for the viewer. For example, the opening curtain showcases a wooded area and informs the audience that the Larin residence in the country is the first location for the entirety of Act 1. While the middle scene takes place in what looks like a study hall of sorts, the visual setup is almost identical throughout. These are traditional sets to be sure with a late 1800s peasant home. The stage has been divided up into two sections throughout this act; downstage is a large ample area that showcases the indoor setting of the Larin residence, while windows and doors in the center allow the glimpses of the outside from time to time. This allows for a tremendous amount of depth and, as will be seen throughout the performance, the opportunity for dynamic use of the space. In the final scene of the act, Tatiana sits inside the home quietly while the upstage area reveals the large chorus singing of its momentary joy; this image provides not only provides a powerful counterpoint but emphasizes Tatiana's introspective nature and the isolation she feels in that moment. During the iconic letter scene, Tatiana opens up the door and exits into the magic of the night as the famous delicate melodic statement that dominates Lenski's aria and subsequent parts of the opera makes its very first appearance. The delicate expression of the melody in the winds coupled with the mystery of the night creates a brief sense of serenity and hope.
The use of space is also beautifully portrayed during the quartet featuring Lenski, Onegin, Tatiana, and Olga. Initially, Lenski and Onegin stand in the middle of the stage while Tatiana sits stage right and Olga sits stage left. Then the two men split up with Lenski pursuing Olga and Onegin looking to converse with Tatiana. At this point, the two "couples" are on opposite ends of the stage and their location only helps emphasize their major differences; Lenski and Olga are animatedly flirting while Onegin and Tatiana are in a tense conversation. While this does divide the attention at times, it creates a dynamic viewing experience that is constantly developing the relationships between the characters. Later in the scene, Onegin and Tatiana move upstage while Lenski and Olga's scene shifts to downstage in another brief, but exemplary distribution of theatrical space.
The rejection scene between Onegin and Tatiana is another powerful display of visual dynamic between the characters. A frightened Tatiana remains stuck in place as the more relaxed Onegin lectures her on why he cannot accept her love. As the scene draws to an end, he kisses her casually before picking up his coat, grabbing a fruit, and rushing out the door.
The second act is divided up into two scenes; the first is Tatiana's birthday celebration while the latter is famous duel between Onegin and Lenski. The former is arguably the most lavish of all sets with chandeliers, ornate walls, and tremendous detail throughout. This is in many ways the most powerfully directed scene of all because of the nuance exhibited throughout. The scene features two dances: a waltz and a cotillion. Both are expertly choreographed and enable the story to develop brilliantly. Onegin and Olga dance throughout the waltz, creating a tremendous amount of tension with Lenski despite the cheerful music. However, the most powerful moment in this scene is possibly the most subtle. During the waltz sequence, there are two characters that are noticeably isolated from the fanfare: Tatiana and Lenski. Both are seated all the way down-stage, but seemingly close to one another. It is at this particular moment, as they both watch their impossible loves dancing with one another, that the viewer wonders why they simply do not turn toward one another and consider Onegin's advice from the first act (he tells the poet that he would take Tatiana over Olga if it were in Lenski's shoes). Afterall, they are both dreamers and romantics. They both love literature. They are both introspective, but passionate. It is no secret that these two characters were the ones that Tchaikovsky identified with most and he makes musical connections between the two throughout the work. This proves to be the first of many visual connections between the characters that, tragically, fell for the wrong person.
The Onegin-Lenski confrontation is equally riveting in its execution. With the party headed to a small alcove up-stage (another impressive display of the public/ outer world versus the private/ inner one from the first act), Onegin and Lenski find themselves on opposite sides of the large salon. Lenski is drinking incessantly, adding more credibility to his eventual decision to challenge his friend to a duel. All the attendees flood the room as the conflict reaches its boiling point and the two men start throwing blows at each other. Onegin eventually leaves the party while Lenski remains behind to confront Olga one last time. Lenski takes his beloved in his arms on stage right as the entire entourage of partygoers look on awaiting whether Lenski will forgive Olga; this heightens the moment and makes his ensuing "Olga! Farewell forever!" all the more painful to watch.
The ensuing scene is a masterpiece of visual flair. The stage is mostly bare save for two mirrors (a major thematic motif) on the far stage right and left areas. In the center is what looks like a massive log while small trees hang out upstage. Mist covers the stage, creating the effect of a glacial plain and hinting at the snowy Russian terrain. The duet that precedes the duel features Lenski and Onegin standing on opposite sides of the stage. Right before they get into their places, Lenski approaches Onegin and offers his hand in a sign of respect. Onegin not only takes his hand but gives his friend a passionate, almost desperate, hug. The gesture is extremely telling not only in its foreshadowing of Onegin's growing loneliness, but also in his love for his friend; he clearly does not want to kill Lenski and hopes that a reconciliation might be in order. Once Lenski has been shot dead, Onegin stands still; frozen like the landscape around him. His double reacts with jolted fear and runs away from the scene as Onegin picks his friend up and holds him in his arms one last time; a powerful display of love that is often overlooked in other productions of the work.
The final act is somewhat disappointing compared to the rest as it seems to be part of a different production in some respects. Set in St. Petersburg, it features a set of large columns dominating a rather bare space. After the elegance of the Larin residence and the exquisite visual creation of the snowy plain, one expects a bit more opulence from the Russian society. While it does not come from the actual set, the potent wardrobe more than makes up for it. Tatiana's red dress is stunning not only in its elaborate design, but also in how it completely dominates the viewer's attention and enables the audience to identify with Onegin's perspective in this scene. Like the other dances, the famous polonaise is given a stately choreography; a huge contrast to the more animated dances showcased in the country scenes.
The final scene between Onegin and Tatiana is a mirror of two other scenes. On a visual and dramatic level it mirrors the Lenski scene. Both of those scenes take place in a snowy landscape and both feature Onegin losing a beloved person on his way to becoming a lonelier soul. They are also both duels of some kind and take place in the outer/public sphere. Lenski and Onegin are engaging in a ceremonial action while Tatiana's personal life (and how she is viewed in the public sphere) is at stake as she does battle with her feelings and Onegin's insistence. On a more thematic level, this last scene provides a direct parallel for the final scene of Act 1 when Onegin rejects Tatiana. This time the roles are reversed and to emphasize it, Shaw has Tatiana kiss Onegin as the scene comes to a close. Unlike the brief Onegin kiss from earlier, this one is filled with a tremendous amount of passion. The music has stopped and silence dominates the atmosphere to chilling effect, making the kiss seem eternal. Tatiana suddenly breaks it off and walks away; the silence continuing until Onegin finds himself all alone and utters his final few lines. The unification of this scene with the other two allows the viewer to clearly see the moments where Onegin essentially destroys his own soul and his chance at happiness. The one major issue in this scene is that the falling "snow" makes an intermittent crackling sound as it hits the stage and creates some distraction from the music.
While the production is filled with sublimity, it was the performers who helped bring the vision to life. Leading the way was Mariusz Kwiecien as the tragic hero. While Tatiana and Lenski tend to dominate most presentations of the work, Kwiecien's performance helped create balance between the three characters. He had arrogance about him throughout the first half of the opera and looked like a predator as he talked with Tatiana about her interests and romantic ideals. As previously noted, his aloofness in the final scene of Act 1 proved a brilliant contrast to the frozen and nervous Tatiana; his sinister kiss at the end of the scene made him a truly despicable character. This unlikeable nature continued throughout the second act as Kwiecien continued to color his Onegin with almost boyish cockiness. Even in the confrontation with Lenski, he seemed to mock his friend. However, the tables quickly turned for the character in the duel scene. As he arrived for the duel, Kwiecien's Onegin immediately moved toward Lenski, a conciliatory expression on his face. The climactic hug in the crucial moment leading up the duel was full of intense emotion that was almost unimaginable from the character scenes earlier. In the final act, the viewer truly started to feel for Onegin as he moved about frantically looking for someone to talk to. The frustration became increasingly apparent as Kwiecien's Onegin constantly wound up empty-handed and alone. This added a twist of irony to Onegin's first words of the scene as he was literally talking to himself with no one interested in listening about his travels. By the final scene, the poised and controlled man was on his knees begging.
Kwiecien's vocal portrayal matched the character development. He was rather cool and collected in the earlier scenes, but started to sing with more intensity and ardent colors as the work developed and the character lost control of his emotions. In the final moments of the first scene of Act 3, Onegin declares his love for Tatiana in the same melody and similar text to that of her letter scene. Kwiecien seemingly pushed his voice to the limit in the arching melodies that Tchaikovsky wrote in this passage. However, he managed to find another level of vigor and energy in the final scene with Tatiana; his potent voice almost in an emotional battle for domination with Netrebko's equally voluminous voice.
Anna Netrebko's shift into new repertoire has been major news for months now and the choice of Tatiana could not be more fitting. In addition to the obvious comfort she has with her native Russian idiom is the fact that she seems to have found new levels of vocal expression in this particular role. Take the famed letter scene for example. Netrebko started that scene with the tremendous potency that her voice is known for. During the passage that starts with "I drink the magic potion of desire," there was suavity and sensuality that suggested the character's first comprehension of her sexual longing. A more agitated sense took over as she pondered whether to write the letter or not (she constantly ripped out sheets to portray this insecurity) until she reached the passage where she romanticizes about Onegin being sent to her by God and how he appeared in her dreams. Netrebko's voice took on a floating complexion and sounded wistful and surreal in some instances. The voice built a slow crescendo until Tatiana declares that she knew he was the one from the moment he walked into the room; "It is he!" she exclaims. In the final section of the aria ("Who are you? My Guardian Angel or my seducer?"), Netrebko sang with a tender pianissimo that while ethereal, had a distinct quality from the aforementioned surreal one she showcased earlier in the scene. In the final confrontation of Act 3, Netrebko managed to imbue the character with yet another range of colors. While the earlier scenes portrayed Tatiana's delicate nature, her voice had a more authority in the confrontation; there was heavier quality and the full volume of the voice was unleashed to powerful effect. There is one moment where Tatiana seemingly gives in to her desires; in this particular passage, Netrebko imbued Tatiana's vocal line with the fragility displayed earlier. The final high note that ends the role was delivered with tremendous abandon and soared over the tumult in the orchestra.
Netrebko has always been characterized as a brilliant actress and she did some of her finest work at the Met on Monday night. As the work started, her Tatiana moved about with no real confidence; the arms were tucked in and the head seemingly looking down to portray a timid girl. She barely looked up throughout that scene and remained fixed in her chair. During her first meeting with Onegin, Tatiana would follow behind him and then turn away when his gaze fixed on her. During the letter scene, the power of love seemed to give her tremendous confidence as she darted about with newfound energy. After she finished the letter, she ordered her nana Filippyevna around with the authority of a confident woman. The rejection scene saw all of this energy shut down as Netrebko remained fixed in the same spot for the entirety of the scene; she almost seemed trapped with no seeming way to get out. In the final act, the character walked about with the confidence of the princess she has become; the slouching posture was gone and had been replaced with firm elegance. Even in the confrontation with Onegin, the character retained an aura of inner strength throughout.
In the role of Lenski was a solid Piotr Beczala. The Polish tenor sang throughout with the vibrancy and clarity that has characterized many of his great Met performances. His major touchstones were undoubtedly the solo leading up to the great concertato and the famed aria "Kuda kuda" in Act 2. The singing at the start of the concertato was subdued but filled with a despair that seemed intent on releasing itself fully. The "Kuda kuda" was the perfect vehicle for this release of desperation, particularly in the section where Lenski ponders whether Olga will even remember him once he dies; at this moment, Bezcala's vocal expression wept. Bezcala remained fixed in the same spot throughout the aria, matching the frozen landscape around him; he almost seemed as if he'd given up at that point and knew that death was imminent. Bezcala was also effective in expressing a number of parallels between Lenski and Tatiana throughout the evening. The helplessness of Lenski running after Olga throughout the ball brought to mind the confused Tatiana during her letter scene as she attempts to decide on writing the letter or not. Lenski's bashfulness early on in his declaration of love to Olga also mirrored Tatiana's shyness during her scenes with Onegin in Act 1.
Oskana Volkova proved to be a fine Olga. She radiated with energy from her first entrance and throughout the ball scene. In early scenes she jested with the timid Tatiana and pranced about as Lenski flirted with her. The character's happy-go-lucky nature matched perfectly with Kwiecien's relaxed temperament in the early acts and contrasted well with the more introspective Netrebko and Bezcala. The lower range of her voice shone brilliantly at the end of the character's brief aria.
Alexei Tanovitski created an enviable presence as Prince Gremin; his towering figure made him the most noticeable person on stage throughout his gorgeous aria. Tanovitski's voice has a granular quality, but it is robust and tender at the same time. John Graham-Hall gave a charming portrayal of the handicapped Triquet in his brief scene. Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadkova were admirable in their respective performances as Madame Larina and Filippyevna.
Conductor Valery Gergiev showed why he is the greatest living interpreter of Russian music as he and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra gave a riveting account of Tchaikovsky's masterwork. The opening lines of the prelude were gentle but slowly built up into desperate cries of longing. Every time the opening motif reappeared, the level of crisis was higher than its previous iteration; the longing and striving growing stronger, almost as if it was starting to become unbearable. The explosion of sound at the end of the letter scene is one of the more glorious moments in the score due to its lyrical beauty, but also because of the momentum building in the accompaniment. This forward drive has never been more apparent than in Monday night's performance and it reflected the excitement and growing confidence of Tatiana in that moment. After the letter scene, the orchestra builds a powerful crescendo that emulates the rising of the sun; Gergiev created a fascinating musical effect that was timed perfectly with the light changes taking place on stage. The dances were all filled with tremendous amounts of energy, especially the mazurka in the final act. Surprisingly, the famous polonaise was the most reserved of the group. The middle section seemed to slow down its tempo and acquired a more introspective quality; the shift was rather surprising, but the rendition matched the emotional turmoil that Onegin was undergoing onstage at the particular moment.
It is really hard to ask for more than what was on display at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night on Monday. The production might not have been a high concept one filled with symbolism or new plot twists, but it was rife with detail and the humanism of the original conception; the performers created a tremendous amount of depth and nuance in an unforgettable night at the opera. Regardless of whether you love opera or have very little interest in the art form, the Met's "Eugene Onegin" is a powerful experience that anyone can and should relish.