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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Eugene Onegin

A troika of stars open the 2013 season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This is the preview for Eugene Onegin. The Superconductor review of opening night can be found here.
Mariusz Kwiecien and Anna Netrebko clinch in a promotional image for Eugene Onegin.
Photo © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
For the third consecutive year, the Metropolitan Opera has elected to open its season with a new production tailored to the needs of soprano Anna Netrebko. Here, the dark-eyed diva stars as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved operas. Tatiana must choose between the safety of a bourgeois marriage and a whirlwind romance with the title characte, played by bari-hunk Mariusz Kwiecien. Completing the troika of stars is tenor Piotr Beczala as Lensky, Onegin’s doomed rival.

Like that other Tchaikovsky mega-hit The Queen of Spades, this opera is also based on a play by Aleksandr Pushkin.  Onegin is, in essence an intimate chamber drama, set among the moneyed Russian aristocracy as they deal with conventional problems between men and women. Tchaikovsky was half joking when he suggested Pushkin's drama as an operatic subject. He failed to anticipate that this would be among his most loved and longest running stage works. (Then again, the composer thought that The Nutcracker was a dud too.)

In addition to orchestral showpieces like the famous Polonaise, the score continues Tchaikovsky's approach of fusing Western musical structures to traditional Russian choral music, creating music of tremendous vitality and beauty. The composer provides some of his most sensitive music to accompany the love triangle between Onegin, Lensky and Tatiana, and she is one of the most memorable heroines in Russian opera.

This new production (seen originally at the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London) is by director Deborah Warner. (Due to a medical issue, Ms. Warner has been replaced by director Fiona Shaw.) This is a conservative staging. (Writing for the Daily Telegraph, British critic Rupert Christiansen commented that it may be safely recommended to the "primmest maiden aunt with the most conservative tastes.") It also marks the return of former Metropolitan Opera principal guest conductor Valery Gergiev to the opera house’s podium after a three-year absence.

Eugene Onegin opens the Met season with a gala performance and live simulcast (in Lincoln Center Plaza and Times Square) on September 23. The first generale performance is scheduled for Sept. 26. The second cast (debuting November 23) features Marina Poplavskaya as Tatiana (she created Tatiana in the London performances) flanked by tenor Rolando Villazon and baritone Peter Mattei in the title role.

Recording Recommendations:
Tchaikovsky's most enduring opera has been recorded a number of times, with versions appearing on most of the major classical music labels.  Most sets are in Russian although the Peter Moores Foundation sponsored an English-language set (on Chandos) with Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles. One of the underrated sets comes from Sofia, Bulgaria as part of Sony's edition of Russian operas that came out in the 1980s and early '90s conducted by Emil Tchakarov.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. James Levine (Deutsche Grammophon, 1989)

Onegin: Thomas Allen
Tatiana: Mirella Freni
Lensky: Neil Shicoff
This is not exactly an idiomatic cast for Onegin, but this Dresden recording does have the luxuries of a superb orchestra conducted by an in-his-prime James Levine. Mirella Freni is getting to the end of her career here, but she remains a passionate Tatiana. Tenor Neil Shicoff, whose characterful singing marked a stellar career, is Lensky. The veteran baritone Thomas Allen sings Onegin with a welcome world-wearines suited to this character. And if you're wondering where the Russian singers are, this a set that predates the rise of perestroika and glasnost.

Tickets for Eugene Onegin are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting Aug. 11.

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