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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Opera Review: Meet the New Aristocrats

The Met's second cast takes over Eugene Onegin.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marina Poplavskaya takes over in the Met's new production of Eugene Onegin.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
It is sometimes instructive to see the second cast. That maxim applies to the mid-season return of Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw's new Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera. The revival opened last week. On Monday night, the cast: baritone Peter Mattei (Onegin) soprano Marina Poplavskaya (Tatiana) and tenor Rolando Villazón (Lenski) gave their third performance together. They brought fresh energy and perspective to this production, which opened the Met's season in September of this year.

In the title role, Peter Mattei offered a finely weighted, ultimately ambiguous performance that explored the deep reaches of this complex character. The tall Swede's striking stage presence and smooth, gliding baritone was a great fit for this music in the first two acts, handsome but aloof--with a sense of the romantic hero trapped in his fate by the cruel workings of the opera's plot. The third act showed Onegin as a changed man, complicated further by his true feelings for Tatiana. The confession and confrontation were painful and intense in the best operatic tradition.

Tatiana Larina is a young, passionate girl, and as reimagined by Tchaikovsky the dramatic linchpin of the whole drama. That makes the decision to cast the aristocratic Ms. Poplavskaya in this role a bit counter-intuitive.  True, she sings with fine Russian diction and can act to some degree, but the Letter Scene demands more depth of character and sweetness of tone than was present here. The passion and breadth of the orchestral writing was present, but the voice was clearly strained in the crucial, climactic moments where the character has to sweep the audience along in a wave of scribbled passion. In her following confrontation with Onegin, her broken heart turned to ice.

In Act II, her emotions were masked by furrowed brow and steely gaze, defending her innermost thoughts against the two male leads but also, to some degree, the audience. Even the bizarre, disastrous events of Tatiana's name-day party seemed to not affect her through this self-imposed emotional wall, even as the evening spun out of control in the feud between Lenski and Onegin. She was positively regal in the last act. That facade (finally) shattered with her simple confession of love to Onegin. Unlike this production's first run, there was no hint of future romance between these would-be lovers.

These performances mark the return of Rolando Villazón to the Met stage after his career was interrupted by throat surgery. The Mexican tenor was a passionate, committed Lenski, throwing himself full on into the build-up to the duel scene in Act II as his friendship with Onegin collapses and the fateful challenge is issued. He topped this with a moving and deeply felt "Kuda, kuda, kuda" made more so because he was pushing his repaired voice to the limit. Clearly a year of coaching and singing regularly has done wonders to restore Mr. Villazón to vocal health--the instrument is close to sounding like a slightly smaller version of its former self.

The most impressive male voice on the stage didn't show up until Act III. It belonged to bass Stefan Kocán whose rich, dark-tinged delivery as Prince Gremin made one wonder if Tatiana had indeed wound up with the right guy. This long aria was sung with subtlety of phrase and a rich melodic line in what may be a star-making performance for this promising bass. Elena Maximova brought girlish charm to the key role of Olga, Tatiana's sister. It was also a small pleasure to hear the pairing of stage veterans Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadakova as Larina and Filippyevna. The latter, in the role of Tatiana's nanny in the first act, is one of the great ladies of the Russian operatic stage.

In the pit, Alexander Vedernikov kept a sense of rhythmic snap in the dance numbers and appropriately romantic accompaniment in the climactic moments of the score. He made this opera sound organic, helped by superb playing from this fine orchestra. This production, by Deborah Warner still looks unattractive, with Pottery Barn chic for the first act and drab Russian interiors for the ballrooms. These plain sets echo the work's best location, a desolate foggy fen where Onegin and Lenski duel to the death. (That location returns, with the inexplicable addition of columns) for the final scene between Onegin and Tatiana. The stage direction, by late substitute Fiona Shaw, still seems aimless, although the show felt more coherent than it did on opening night. Perhaps this is because the pressure was off.

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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.