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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The Mariinsky, Gergiev and Daniil Trifonov

On Tuesday I went to see the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. To quote anonymous advisors of Rick Perry from a week or so ago, we’ve got a tired puppy (I mean the orchestra, not somewhat puppy-like pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was not tired at all). But they were still exciting! I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here.

The orchestra’s sound came as a bit of a shock after all that Viennese refinement. I think I like it, but I may be allergic to that soft-reeded sound of Russian woodwind sections.

Off to the Don tonight.

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Dude where’s my nose

Shostakovich, The Nose.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/5/2010.  New production premiere by William Kentridge, conducted by Valery Gergiev with Paulo Szot (Kovalyov), Gordon Gietz (his nose), Andrei Popov (police inspector), many many other people.

Whew!  That was quite an evening.  Shostakovich’s first opera is an odd one, and William Kentridge’s new production at the Met is visually fantastic and appropriately individual.  The AP seems to think it’s “daunting” for its few and brave audience members, but really it’s nothing of the sort, and y’all should go see it because you’ll love it.

But it is obscure, so maybe some background is in order: Shostakovich was only in his early twenties when he composed this, his first opera. The libretto is a fairly direct adaptation of the Gogol story of the same title with the exception of some added scenes in the second half of the opera.  It premiered in 1930, at the tail end of an experimental era in Soviet art, just before the crackdown that infamously condemned Shostakovich’s second opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”  Read Laurel Fay’s excellent, unsentimental biography for more.

The plot concerns a man who wakes up one day to find his nose is missing.  He chases it all over St. Petersburg.  It’s utterly absurd, and Shostakovich’s chaotic, mostly non-tonal score is equally non-sensical, at least on the surface.

The Met’s production is dominated by Kentridge’s animations, projected onto the cyclorama behind the action.  They mix drawings with newspaper clippings and archival footage.  The use of newspapers throughout the production is ingenious, replicating the stance of Gogol’s narrator, who is only a reporter of events he can’t quite believe.  The interior scenes take place on small rolling set pieces, the exterior ones on the empty stage in front of the cyc (the projections sometimes provide suggestions of our locale, sometimes not).  The animations also include a great deal of text, both in English and Russian: some enigmatic but vaguely relevant epigrams, some titles for the sung text, and some straightforward scene setting letting us know where we are.

As you can guess, it is all very busy.  The animations are often the center of attention, especially when you are sitting far up like I was and they are so much bigger than the people onstage.  Sometimes I found them distracting from the music, and it may be honest to say this is more Kentridge’s Nose than Shostakovich’s,* but for the most part I thought they added rather than detracted, and pick up on the montage qualities of the score.  In general, both the animations and the direction of the singers showed a lot of attention to the music, even if they occasionally overshadowed it.  Also, it all looks really cool.

The only character of real significance is Kovalyov, he of the missing nose, sung here by South Pacific‘s Paulo Szot.   He’s got a pleasant, not particularly memorable baritone that isn’t quite big enough for the Met in this role and was inaudible occasionally.  But he’s very sympathetic and likeable in what is more or less the passive reactionary (as in reacting) role, and once he (spoiler) regains his nose celebrates with a lot of charming semi-dancing that makes me wish he had been given a more dynamic role in the rest of the opera.

Szot wasn’t alone in having some musical issues.  The orchestra for this opera is small, and not small but big like Ariadne, but actually small.  Gergiev made it colorful and snappy like he usually does, but it all got a bit lost in the barn, and everything sounded much more distant than usual.  I think the audibility problems may have been due to the projection screens, which may have been absorbing sound–all the singers sounded a bit muffled, despite the small orchestra.  Things in the small downstage rooms were acoustically much better.

The many other soloists were good as well, including Andrei Popov’s very very high notes as the Police Inspector and Gordon Gietz’s almost as high notes as the Nose itself.  On the female side, Erin Morley’s mini-letter aria was really lovely (and will surely sound familiar to all you Onegin fans–both are going for the romance genre). 

Kentridge’s big scenes included some fantastic (in the uncanny sense) characters with masks and odd proportions whose purpose I didn’t really understand, but I’ll chalk it all up to “this is absurdist.”  (See above photo.)  Szot’s nose never goes missing in a literal way, which gives the reactions to its absence a sinister quality–and the giant paper-mache nose running and dancing around is also a little scary.  While the story is set in Imperial Russia, the political elements of this production point at an ambiguous later era.  Despite all the Russian in the animations and the occasional image of Stalin or Shostakovich, it’s very generalized, dealing with paranoia, rumor-spreading, bureaucracy, and mob mentalities that could be anywhere and any time.   It’s “Kafkaesque”–Kovalyov could be Josef K.–in a way that actually feels appropriate and informative for the work, unlike, um, say, Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  It’s abstract but creates a coherent world for the work in a visually compelling way.  So it’s a winner for me.

A few words about the “daunting” bit espoused by the AP: AP, you are WRONG.  For an audience whose only cultural consumption is Rigoletto, the musical and dramatic language of The Nose is challenging.  But for anyone even vaguely familiar with modern literature, theater, or film it is probably a heck of a lot more accessible than Lucia di Lammermoor.  Culturally literate people who think opera is not for them should all see this, it’s entirely unstuffy, it’s funny, it’s short, it’s visually memorable.  Seriously, I don’t get it, AP (but thanks for all the pictures, which I stole).  The Awl has a good piece explaining why you should go see this, if I haven’t convinced you.  Really, go.

Next:  Too many premieres recently, I’m tiiiiired.  Off next week, but after that, Hamlet or not to Hamlet, that is the question. Answer is unclear.  I like Keenlyside but think the opera is pretty boring.  Shame it’s getting an HD broadcast and not The Nose. If not, until L’Étoile at the City Opera.

*According to the piece on Kentridge in The New Yorker, the nose IS in fact modeled on Kentridge’s own, so there.

Photos by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press.

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