Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” opens with a conversation between Madame Larina and Filippyevna remarking on arranged marriages and their overall lack of choice in the matter. A few scenes later, Filippyevna jokingly informs her beloved Tatiana that in her old times, the thought of love was nonsense for a young girl and then narrates her marriage at age 13 or 14 to a boy younger than her, noting that “God willed it” and her father made the final decision. Meanwhile, Tatiana’s younger sister Olga understands that she has been destined to marry Lenski, even if she isn’t always thrilled at the idea and enjoys flirting with other guys instead.
It is rather telling that the opera’s main title is the name of a man, male dominance really the subtext of the entire opera. That it is the work’s most careless and insensitive of men, only adds to the overall theme of women being held as captives by the often irrational (see the duel) and impulsive male counterparts. But it is also fitting that the opera’s climax features a woman finally breaking free of that bond by making a determination over her own future. While Tatiana also falls prey to the arranged marriage, she faces a circumstance in which she has the right to break away, but ultimately follows her moral compass instead of becoming an object for yet another man.
Deborah Warner’s production, which premiered during the 2013-14 season and is on its second revival at the Met, remains among the company’s most astute creations under the Peter Gelb regime thanks in part because it makes this thematic material so apparent and palpable.
Early in the work, a group of townspeople enters the Larina residence to celebrate the harvest. A dance ensues, but in this production, we see a bunch of men essentially throwing a singular woman around as they please.
Tatiana is best seen as the ultimate romantic, living her life through daydreaming and reading books. And while many productions of the work play up her romanticism (and that of Lenski), Warner and set designer Tom Pye essentially strip the world of it, setting this production in a rigid society where pale colors and stuffy interiors tend to suck the life out of the two dreamers. Tatiana momentarily opens the windows of her room for some fresh air at her moment of highest hope but is otherwise locked in once more by Onegin in their ensuing confrontation. The only exterior scenes (the duel and final one) are ones of tragedy and even those are most notable for their glacial trappings.
Tatiana’s wardrobe itself also plays up her limitations. She blends into her background with beige and dark brown colors and even when she appears in all her splendor with a powerful red dress, she becomes an object for both her husband and Onegin. Her final scene sees her in a blue coat, covered head to toes and blending in with the blue hue around her. Visually she is never allowed to have complete power, which makes her choice at the opera’s end all the more potent.
Speaking of which, Warner has stuffed this production with a number of brilliantly staged mirror images that run throughout the opera. Tatiana and Onegin’s relationship can be summed up by two images. After she pours out her heart to him, he appears in her house and chides her on her dreams. Then to clinch it all, he walks up to her and gives her a tender kiss before walking away, a smile on his face and victory achieved. Tatiana is left to her misery. Fast forward to the end of the opera, Tatiana and Onegin are locked in a passionate exchange that is far from one-sided as that early encounter. After telling him she’s gone, this Tatiana runs back to him and jumps into the most passionate kiss one might imagine. And then, as the heat turns up, she walks away dumping him in the cold ice.
Onegin and Lenski’s relationship is also exposed in much the same way, the staging in the Act 2 party scene on opposite sides of the stage a mirror of their duel. While their last physical interaction in that scene is the two of them throwing blows at each other, the ensuing scene ends with Eugene holding his best pal’s corpse in his arms.
The spaces also mirror one another, especially the two ice worlds where Onegin essentially loses the two most important people in his life.
I will note that the constant scene interruptions dragged the running time a bit, turning a well-paced work into a nearly 4-hour night. And that business about Tatiana sending the wrong letter to Onegin destroys some of the admiration one feels when Tatiana ships off the letter. Why empower her and then take it all away and make her look like an irresponsible klutz?
But those minor mistakes don’t really take away from an otherwise brilliantly executed vision and I could go on and on about the ever-fascinating depth and detail-laden throughout, but at some point, I have to let you, the reader, discover it for yourself.
Now on to the artists that brought this marvel to life.
I have a confession to make – I wasn’t the biggest fan of Anna Netrebko’s other big showcase at the Met this season. From her overall lack of chemistry with Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez to the dwarfing of her otherwise opulent voice by Richard Eyre’s needlessly massive sets, “Manon Lescaut” may be the disappointment of the season when all is said and done.
But just as she rebukes Onegin for ever doubting her at the opera’s end, Netrebko’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterwork was an in-your-face reminder that she is singular among modern opera’s elite superstars.
From her first entrance (she pretty much gets two, one offstage and another onstage) she became the center of attention, even when the drama didn’t demand it. Hunched over and eyes to the ground, her Tatiana not only exhibited timidity but tremendous insecurity. Her singing was delicate and pure, but one could sense restraint. Even as she met Onegin, her posture remained the same and she maintained her distance. The quartet in the first act sees Tatiana declare her love for the first time and here Netrebko’s singing soared emphatically. And yet the short-lived moment of release was followed by awkwardness in her interactions with Onegin; this climaxes in the diva rushing off stage with discomfort. The final brief exchange between the two in that scene even saw her walk behind him, the slouching all the more prominent.
The second scene of this act is the make or break moment for any soprano. For Netrebko, it’s one of her defining moments as an artist. Her back is to the audience as the curtain comes up and her initial exchanges with Filippyevna insist on this withdrawn and insecure quality of the character. She gets up but remains rooted in place, her eyes to the ground. You could sense that she is gaining the courage to open about her feeling and yet the fear continues residing within her. Larissa Diadkova’s relaxed vocal and physical presence as Filippyevna, certainly makes the viewer engage with her throughout the scene, but there is no doubt that Netrebko is impossible to look away from. Finally, when she exploded with her confession, we heard the power of her voice booming through the massive Met, almost as if a character waiting to break out had finally emerged. From here it was fireworks. As soon as she was left alone Netrebko’s singing rang with a sense of freedom as she declared her love to Onegin.
And yet, the sense of fear returned quickly and the soprano, who stood upright and firm moments earlier, was moving about looking for an exit, her protective posture returning. Early failed attempts at writing the letter only seemed to perturb her, her voice growing in frailness.
And then at the scene’s emotional midpoint, a singular woodwind playing arguably the most glorious melody in the entire opera, Netrebko opened the windows of the room, stepped outside and returned as a renewed and strengthened person. Her singing was tender but poised, the tone slender but sublime, every vocal intonation caressing every syllable in her native tongue. The phrasing had an elasticity throughout his passage until she finally erupted with confident energy as she eschewed her fears altogether. With the orchestra at its most vibrant, Netrebko gave it her utmost vocally, no sign of emotional restraint. This was vocal risk taking at its finest, Tatiana’s last stand and Netrebko went for it. She rushed to her desk, grabbed the notebook, rushed through a few sheets and then declared her task done with blazing sound before collapsing to the ground from expending so much energy.
As you might imagine, the Met’s always-enthusiastic audience roared its approval in the longest ovation of the evening.
The ensuing scene with Onegin saw Netrebko remain paralyzed onstage, her body in a protective mode as she took one blow after another from a cocky and confident Onegin. This was also apparent throughout the party scene.
And what a breath of fresh air to see Netrebko grace the stage in the final act, her presence immediately and intentionally stealing the limelight. There was a coolness to her character that supported a sense of confidence.
But that slowly deteriorated in the opera’s final scene. While she stood over Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin throughout the scene, her elegant body language slowly betrayed a regression to the most feeble qualities of her earlier self. This visual alone amped up the tension and made you feel that she was going to succumb. Vocally we could feel the torment as Netrebko, more than “singing” threw back retorts as if locked in battle. And with the Polish baritone at his best, the two seemed engaged in a breath-taking combat for control. Remember the business about the opera being about men’s control over women? This scene epitomized that beautifully with Kwiecien constantly lunging at Netrebko, grabbing her, pulling her, almost trying to physically overpower her all while their voices seemed locked in a constant struggle for dominance as it rushed toward its climax. Finally, Netrebko gained the upper hand with a powerful B natural at the music’s apex. And then everything shuts down completely for that revenge kiss.
And as deserted Onegin, Netrebko’s Tatiana stood tall and poised, her pace firm but steady. Even as she walked off-stage it was impossible to look away.
The Tragic Jerk
This production plays up the complexity of its title character who is more antagonist than either hero or anti-hero. Unlike an anti-hero, who is most positive force in an otherwise troublesome world, Onegin is the disruptor and creator of emotional chaos among others. He despises everything around him and belittles everything and everyone. The country? Nothing to do? The city? How vapid everyone feels around him. A young girl pours out her heart for him? He tells her he’d want her if he actually wanted her before telling her to stop daydreaming and see reality for what it is, disappointing.
It’s pretty easy to hate the guy and in Mariusz Kwiecien’s hands, we do. He’s cocky from the get-go, his voice always booming and pointed. You get a sense that he wants to be the center of attention and yet his thorny articulation points fun at everyone. As he watches Lenski flirt with Olga in the opening act, his smile is disingenuous, betraying a patronizing quality. As he walks to dinner he walks right in front of Tatiana instead of doing the gentlemanly thing of letting her go in front of him. As he shuts her down in the rejection scene, he lumbers about, while picking at an apple he just grabs without permission. Throughout this aria, the baritone retained a powerful sense of vocal control, his phrasing polished and confident to denote the character’s sense of strength in this scene. There was a bluntness to the singing that emphasized his unrestrained forwardness and lack of emotional connection to Tatiana. In sum, Onegin was a jerk with no real redeeming qualities.
And yet the ensuing scenes start the change with subtle gestures from both baritone and direction. Onegin enters the party scene carrying a present for Tatiana before going on about his boredom. Then he shows a hint of jealousy as she starts to dance with someone else, taking her for his dance partner instead. The ambiguity of the gesture planted the seeds of doubt over his true feelings for Tatiana at the end of the opera. The argument scene with Lenski finally allowed Kwiecien to tap into Onegin’s emotional rashness, the two men growing more and more violent in their vocal delivery as tension rose.
We get more emotional life from Onegin in the duel scene before finally seeing him unravel in the final act. Drunk and directionless, he stumbles on Tatiana. As he listened to Count Gremin recount his love for his wife, Kwiecien suddenly looked away as if having a revelation. His looks toward Tatiana had a different quality from those in earlier scenes, the transformation becoming palpable for the viewer. And then to cap it all off, the Polish singer sang that final moment of that scene with an emotional release we hadn’t seen at any other point in the opera. The phrasing was unhinged but the passion was wondrous as he declaimed those very same words that Tatiana declares a few acts earlier.
By the duet, you feel bad for him, though you also realize that he has brought all of the torment on himself. Kwiecien knelt down, throwing himself at Netrebko’s feet throughout earlier portions before the aforementioned physical and vocal battle at the climax. As she deserted him, he stooped to the ground and blasted out his final notes, bringing the tragic nature of his character to its abrupt and painful end.
The Fallen Romantic
As Lenski, Alexey Dolgov gave a heart-rending performance of the poet. Ambling about awkwardly with glasses, he sang with a purity and confidence of sound, every phrase etched with a polished legato and warm vibrato. You fell for him immediately, especially as he declared his love for Olga. Some tenors really like to throw caution to the winds during the final passages of this piece and it often works. But sometimes it’s over-the-top and undercuts the sincerity and purity of Lenski’s emotions. He really loves Olga and it’s not some misconstrued or impulsive emotion in the way Onegin’s is at the opera’s conclusion. Dolgov sang these final climaxes with vibrant sound but without overemphasizing any accents or dragging the tempo on the musical arches that Tchaikovsky writes.
But Lenski is not always a controlled fellow and his jealousy certainly gets out of hand in the second act. Dolgov’s awkwardness played into the staging’s hands perfectly, his unsteady pacing emphasizing his lack of depth in these matters. Every phrase became increasingly attacked and even in the concertato, after mourning the loss of innocence, his cry that an innocent girl could be a demon (while throwing Olga to the ground) was highlighted by jagged phrasing and disregard for rhythmic or vocal exactness. It was at this moment that Lenski became unhinged and lost it emotionally. The orchestra responds with an outburst and Dolgov’s Lenski moved about in confusion, surprised by his actions. At some moments, he moved toward Elena Maximova’s fallen Olga as if to help out, before moving away. A final violent outburst with Onegin capped the scene.
The contrast we get in the following scene could not be greater. “Kuda Kuda,” the opera’s most famous moment saw Dolgov play up Lenski’s sense of defeat. His voice, slender in tone throughout, caressed each line as if it were the last he would sing, the tempo getting rubato here and there, but never with exaggeration. The repetition of the main melody, with the focus now on Olga’s future, was more gentle, sung pianissimo. The final vocal lines were whispers, Lenski’s lament coming to a dignified conclusion.
Elena Maximova was spritely as Olga, toying with Tatiana in early stages, flirting openly with Lenski and singing with a joie de vivre that no other character in the entire opera ever does. As her mother, Elena Zaremba had a more stately manner, her singing firm. Brian Dowmen was a gentle Triquet, never really falling into the kitsch we get from other interpretations of the role.
And Stefan Kocán was at his finest as Prince Gremin. Singing with gentle sound, his bass was polished. The gorgeous aria is passionate but dignified in Kocán’s voice, the climaxes steady in their build so we could get a sense of a man very much in control. While he is pouring out his heart, you never get the sense that Kocán’s Gremin is apt to wear his heart on his sleeve at all times. The brightness in his timbre and delicacy with the consonants provided a beautiful contrast to the darker and edgier showcase from Mariusz Kwiecien as Tatiana’s suitor.
Conductor Robin Ticciati guided the entire production with elegance. It wasn’t a revelatory account of Tchaikovsky’s score, but every note was in its place and the overall pacing had a sense of drive. Rubati were few and far between, allowing for any tempo stretching that did occur to have greater emotional weight. I was particularly in love with the support he provided Netrebko in the letter scene, the orchestra never overpowering the soprano even at its most enthusiastic outbursts, the emotions of the character always allowed to be first and foremost for the listener. The dances, which were all elegantly staged, were portrayed with quicker tempi, which only served to create the propulsive drive of the episodic narrative.
This “Eugene Onegin,” which was also Mariusz Kwiecien’s last hoorah in this run, is easily one of the best productions of the entire 2016-17 season. Netrebko pairs up with Peter Mattei in final performances. Expect those performances to be just as memorable as this one.
I conclude this by stating that this review is for the performance on April 7, 2017. I would also like to recognize that this is just one, performance of a seven-performance run. In an ideal situation, I would attend every performance and write a detailed review of the overall work. As it stands, I can only go on my perspective of one performance.