The Met’s opening Onegin

Last night’s Met opening gala premiere of Yevgeny Onegin rendered the opera being performed more or less incidental in the face of multiple protests and technical snafus. It was four and a half hours long and only a little over half of that was taken up by music.

Nonetheless, let’s try to start with that opera. It’s hard. Because despite some distinguished singing, it’s difficult to make something so routine the centerpiece of this unusually eventful evening.

Eugene Onegin. Met opening night gala, 9/23/2014. Production by Deborah Warner, directed by Fiona Shaw. Conducted by Valery Gergiev with Anna Netrebko (Tatiana), Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin), Oksana Volkova (Olga), Piotr Beczala (Lensky), Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina), Larissa Diadkova (Filippyevna), John Graham-Hall (Triquet), Richard Bernstein (Zaretski), Alexei Tanovitski (Gremin)

Deborah Warner’s traditional, realistic production looks like an aspirational BBC miniseries, and outside the scenic happy peasants it’s about equally Russian in its sensibility. It’s realistic and gratuitously detailed. In Act 1, set in a farm workshop kind of place (sets designed by Tom Pye), a bevy of servants bustles around endlessly, which keeps some motion onstage even as the main characters often stand still. The same set–which has windows looking out over a field and a lot of clutter inside–is the setting of Tatiana’s epistolary adventures, as well as her subsequent rejection. The Act 2 ball takes place in a modest parlor-like setting, the duel in a wide open foggy field bisected by a dead tree (the shooting features very large guns for some reason), and the final act in a far grander, colonnaded ballroom. In the final scene, this room apparently is outside, because people are wearing coats and it starts snowing.

will be happy to see that Warner doesn’t seem to have any big original
ideas. The acting comes in and out of focus. (Maybe this is due to its often-absent director.) There is dancing, and there isn’t anything big that you wouldn’t expect. The last scene is by far the most compellingly
directed part of the production, though that might be because it’s one of the
only places in the drama where both the leading characters express strong feelings at the same time. For once both singers seemed to be feeling
it and it was appropriately tense. When the text is less clear, the staging tends to do less, and when there is music without singing no one really does much at all. This is most
egregious in the first act, which is very generic. Onegin in
particular is a notoriously under drawn character, and neither Warner
nor Mariusz Kwiecien have done much to give him any substance. He is,
however, more flirtatious than usual with Tatiana, which seems to make her
infatuation a little more explicable but his rejection less.

Onegin in Amstersdam
Stefan Herheim/Mariss Jansons
 Onegin in Vienna
Falk Richter/Michael Güttler

Actually, there is one dramatic action that is added. Or rather two. After rejecting Tatiana, Onegin gives Tatiana a brief peck on the lips. She returns this in dramatic fashion at the very end of the opera, stopping the music for an awkwardly long makeout session. I didn’t like either addition, which struck me as running violently against the relatively faithful period atmosphere of the rest of the staging, not to mention creating an awkward caesura at the end of the score, a point when its momentum is all-important. There has been nothing to imply that Tatiana’s concern for her marriage and honor were anything less than genuine. It feels impossibly modern and Hollywood. Forbidden love! She shows him what he cannot have! Etc., etc., etc.

It’s a safe, unimaginative production that marks no improvement on the 1997 Robert Carsen production that it replaces. The Carsen had what I consider a respectably long run, but it’s a shame to replace it with something that is less interesting and overall less effective. Carsen also used traditional dress, but the stark setting of an empty box (with birch trees) allowed for the kind of large-scale images that registered in the giant theater. Warner’s eye is more cinematic and problematically intimate. What originality there is is small moments character work that is hardly visible in this large a space. It was best seen through my opera glasses (I was in Orchestra Standing; many seats are far more distant).

Musically, last night lacked the kind of polish one would expect from a premiere. Largely at fault was Valery Gergiev’s weirdly ponderous conducting, which stressed the singers out and often made the action drag. He has infinite experience with this piece, but much was sloppy, and he found none of the brilliant radiance that Mariss Jansons did the last time I heard this opera. The orchestra sounded good at points but out of sorts at others.

The leading roles are strongly cast, the supporting less so. Like every opening night, it was the Anna Netrebko Show. She is ideally cast as Tatiana, singing in her native language and finally find a role that often suits her ardor without straining her agility. But in the first two acts she seemed mostly concerned with appearing modest and disappearing, lest she release the diva before her time had come. This did not help create a character. It was in the Letter Scene and third act where she could show her capabilities, which include a lustrous, rich, tone and a startling immediacy and intensity of expression, as well as a variety of color she doesn’t always find in Italian or French. Sometimes she struggled with Gergiev’s slow tempos, but such vivid singing is always worth it.

Mariusz Kwiecien makes a handsome Onegin, though I didn’t see him doing much to solve the character’s essential vacuity. His singing was handsome too, with a pleasantly smooth, moderately-sized lyric baritone and short on his usual tendency to bellow. Only a soft high note at the end of the Act 1 arioso almost cracked. I’ve already heard Piotr Beczala as Lensky at the Met, and besides Netrebko he did the best singing of the night, sounding the best he has in a while. At his best he has a plangent and well-controlled tenor, and sang the aria with exemplary musicianship. He did not show great interest in acting.

The supporting roles were uneven. As Olga, Oksana Volkova mostly acted with her hips, her singing accurate but grainy and unglamorous of tone. Alexei Tanovitski was an unmemorable Gremin. Richard Bernstein was, as always, an outstanding Zaretski and should be singing leading roles. John Grahm-Hall was an inept Monsieur Triquet and sang with an awful wobble that some singers would pass off as a trill. The chorus sounded a bit spotty.

Now to the rest. The gala audience was more interested in chatting than operagoing, and the whole thing ended almost an hour late due to a late start and long intermissions. There is no place on this or any planet where the 2.5 hour opera Onegin needs to take 4.5 hours (I was standing, which made me very aware of this). One lighting pause after the Letter Scene was mistaken for an intermission by a large portion of the audience, who rushed out and then tried to get back in during the next scene. (Bad house management. I think the Met will have a headache dealing with these gala-goers.)

More importantly, to protest Russia’s laws against LGBT people there was a small picket line outside the theater, and a shouted protest inside before the National Anthem before the performance. The protestors were aiming for visibility and symbolism, and that’s a testament to the Met’s prominence. But I have to wonder what exactly they wanted out of the non-Russian Scrooge McDuck of arts organizations. Peter Gelb’s statement on this matter was asinine, but perhaps all one could expect from someone who is running a gala where many of the seats cost more than my first car. Targeting Netrebko individually seems particularly off-key. What could she safely do? Probably not much. (I am in agreement with La Cieca on this matter.) Moreover, why restrict yourself to symbolic protest and involve Netrebko and the Met when Valery Gergiev is conducting? He is a far more powerful figure and has done several things that could legitimately be cause for a more focused protest (see also: Georgia). Russia’s human rights abuses are not limited to those against LGBT people.

On a lighter note, it’s time for another episode of Program Notes Smackdown. I am, I hasten to add, neither a Pushkin nor a Chaikovsky expert, but I have a few complaints against Gavin Plumley’s notes.

“Its [the novel’s] success was no doubt due to the immediacy of Pushkin’s tale and his ability to draw the reader in to the emotional trials and tribulations of its characters.”

The verse novel is actually famous for its irony and the sardonic tone of its narrator. That’s one of the biggest differences between it and the opera.

“[Chaikovsky] relies on the universal power of recollection, triggered by pithy but persuasive musical ideas…”

The phrase “universal power” makes me nervous. More pointedly, Chaikovsky’s score evokes a wide variety of musical genres and melodic forms that Russian audiences would have recognized and associated with certain contexts (even including a quotation in the opening quartet). That’s far from universal, and it’s one major reason why this opera is part of the Russian national canon.

continues through the fall. The November performances feature a second cast with fantastic Onegin Peter Mattei, and iffy Marina Poplovskaya (Tatiana) and Rolando Villazon (Lensky). The HD is on October 5.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.

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  1. Thanks for the excellent review, Zerbinetta (should we address you as Micaela now?). I'm disappointed that the production isn't exciting. Though I loved the old one (a minority opinion in musicological circles I believe) I was hoping for something with a bit more production excitement or interpretation. Of course, I will probably still go to the broadcast – what can I say, I'm a sucker for anything Onegin.

    On the subject of the protests, I thought that Gergiev was a target – but am I wrong? He has much stronger ties to Putin and would be in a much stronger position to make any comments about the laws – not that any of us should hold our breath waiting for that.

  2. I could have been clearer about the protests. The protestors did mention Gergiev, but they gave him and Netrebko equal billing, which seems absurd.

    The Carsen production wasn't very popular for most of its existence, but as soon as its replacement was announced it became everyone's favorite.

  3. I thought the Carsen production was very good indeed but then I'm a sucker for pretty much anything Carsen.

    On the protests, I'm really not sure what the Met could/should have done. Human Rights violations are hardly confined to Russia's treatment of LGBT people, reprehensible though that is. Should one dedicate every performance to protesting something egregious?

  4. Decided to skip this production after reading Boulezian's review which started something like "Was this really the ENO or did I dose off and have a Met Opera nightmare." I was not a huge fan of the Carsen production when I first saw it with Fleming/Hvororostovsky/Gergiev-many seem to think that because he is Russian everything Gergiev does is great–I just don't think he is a good conducter. Saw it the next season with Mattilla/Hampson/ Belohlavevek{sp?} and it thought it was wonderful–performers do make a difference in how you view a production–but this new Onegin seems pretty hopeless.

  5. Thank you for the review. You mention having seen Piotr Beczala as Lensky at the Met prior to this evening. Was that with Mattila, how was she? I've always wondered what she was like in that role. Some reviews said she was phenomenal, other said she was miscast.

  6. On the last outing of the Carsen: I saw it but I don't remember it in too much detail, honestly. I enjoyed it, I think I recall Mattila acting well but lacking a degree of vocal opulence.

  7. Anyone know what the mirthful little song Piotr Beczała and Mariusz Kwiecien sang at one of the Eugene Onegin opera interviews backstage? I think it was Polish; does anyone remember it or know what it was about. They both seemed to think it extremely humorous. Posted as anonymous because I don't fit into any of the other categories, but you can call me Ken..