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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Opera Review: The Russian Hat Trick

Anna Netrebko opens the Met season (again) with Eugene Onegin.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Reunited: Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecien, left) and Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) clench in the final scene
of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
With her third consecutive starring role on the opening night of a Metropolitan Opera season, Anna Netrebko has become the face of the company in this decade. On Monday night, New Yorkers gathered at the opera house, in Lincoln Center plaza and in Times Square heard the superstar soprano sing Tatiana in the company's new production of Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin. This performance (viewed by this writer in Times Square) makes a strong case for this work as one of the greatest Russian operas ever written.

Despite certain casting similarities (most notably Ms. Netrebko and the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) this  Onegin (planned by director Deborah Warner and executed by her colleague Fiona Shaw) couldn't be more different than last year's opener, a frothy production of L'Elisir d'Amore. This story is deadly serious, a clash of young love, bourgeois values and Russian honor that ends in heartbreak and death. Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Pushkin's "verse novel" consists of just seven scenes, but his lush, sweeping score is what lends humanity and dimension to this troika of lovelorn aristocrats.

 
From the first bars under the baton of Valery Gergiev, this was a meaningful performance. The rich colors of Tchaikovsky's score sprang to vivid life under Mr. Gergiev's leadership, with the cellos and winds of the orchestra somehow following every tremble of fingers or glare under beetling brows. The singers onstage were enthusiastically in their parts, as the first tableau introduced the Larin sisters Tatiana and Olga (Oksana Volkova), their neighbor Onegin (Mr. Kwiecien) and Lensky (Piotr Beczala) the firebrand poet in love with Olga. This opening scene was joyful and innocent--given a handsome, if brittle setting in a big glass house, with a surprising wealth of Russian Orthodox icons and religious images in the first act.

At the center of the first act is Tatiana, and her youthful passion for Onegin--the heartless young aristocrat who happens to be the boy next door. She falls head over heels for him, leading up to the famous Letter Scene.This is a 12-minute tour de force that allowed Ms. Netrebko to display all of her resources as a singing actress, diving deep into a sea of emotions even as she impetuously scribbled down phrases, only to tear them helter-skelter out of her private diary. Ms. Netrebko has been singing Tatiana for about a year now. Her voice has become mellower with age, expressing nuance and meaning with a thick, syrupy tone that is perfect for Tchaikovsky's saccharine melodic lines.

Onegin is one of Mr. Kwiecien's touchstone roles. In the following scene, he showed why, responding to Tatiana's letter with a chilly, brutal honesty and an icy demeanor. His clipped phrases (delivered between bites of an apple) made the scene all the more painful. In the following Act II confrontation and following duel with Lensky, Mr. Kwiecien maintained  this demeanor. He arrived at the duel  while breakfasting on an enormous loaf of bread. The symbol of constant movement and food consumption underlining something shark-like and cruel in his careless treatment of Tatiana and his willingness to shoot his best friend dead.

The scenes building up to the duel belonged to Mr. Beczala. The tenor's sweet tone and anguished delivery made Lensky into a compelling, doomed figure. "Kuda, kuda, kuda", the big monologue before the character's death matched the Letter Scene in its passionate outpouring, a celebration of life by a young man about to make a terrible mistake. Honor and respect--or the need for both--are what causes Lensky's death. Following a taut fugue between tenor and baritone and the killing itself, Tchaikovsky is smart and economical, ringing down the curtain and allowing the viewers an intermission to grieve for poor Lensky.

The festive Polonaise opens the last act, set seven years later in St. Petersburg. Here, the conflict between Onegin and Tatiana comes to a head, with him expressing his love for her (having finally discovered that he has a soul and giving voice to his inner passions.) Of course now it is her turn to reject the would-be suitor, retreating into the security of her marriage to a Russian prince and the icy values that Onegin originally embraced. Interestingly, their confrontation in this production ended in a passionate, lengthy kiss. Is director Fiona Shaw hinting that the last bars of Onegin may not be the end of the affair?

As one would expect from a Met season opener, this Onegin features a committed supporting cast. Standouts included Larissa Diadakova as the Nurse, the veteran Elena Zaremba as the girls' mother Larina, the sympathetic bass Alexei Tanovitski as Prince Gremin (Tatiana's eventual husband, who gets a really nice aria in the last act) and tenor John Graham-Hall as Triquet. The latter's name-day ode to Tatiana in the second act forms an amusing, skewed counterpart to the genuine poetry of Lensky.

Ms. Warner's handsome production (seen originally at the English National Opera, a world-class house in its own right that has become a sort of staging ground for the Met in recent years) draws the viewer into the 19th century. The sets (by Tom Pye) are meticulous in detail. Gorgeous period costumes (by Chloe Oblonsky) are presented with attention to detail. Their very extravagance stimulates the imagination and allows the brilliance of this opera to penetrate the mind. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.