November 2013

Eugene Onegin - The Met's Seasonason Opener reviewed by Renate Stendhal  Scene4 Magazine-November 2013

The Met's Season Opening Live in HD: Another Star Turn for Anna Netrebko

Renate Stendhal

Deborah Warner is a decorated British theater director who has occasionally branched out into film (The Last September) and opera. She has a long-standing working relationship with the Irish actress Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter, True Blood) who also directs. When Warner's staging of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Met (a co-production with the English National Opera) got interrupted by sickness, Fiona Shaw took over only briefly to finish the show. The result is a bit of a muddle. Act I and II are finely tuned, often thrilling psychological drama. Act III at times veers toward melodrama.

Video excerpt: Deborah Warner Talking About Her Production

The stellar cast – Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecien and Piotr Beczala in the main roles and almost every one else either Russian or Polish – may have been hand-picked by Netrebko and her old-time Mosow mentor Valery Gergiev, who conducted the opera with Russian emotional fervor and sweep. In spite of the directorial breaks of style, this production of Tchaikovsky's perhaps greatest opera will not easily be matched in its musical and vocal power or its theatrical intensity.


Handsome, kind-faced Piotr Beczala is a bright-toned, lyrical Lensky, singing and acting the poet with strong feeling. He worships Tatyana's younger sister Olga, sung by Oksana Volkova, an arrestingly dark, full-voiced mezzo who acts and moves with girlish vivacity. Beczala charmingly puts on glasses to read Olga his latest poem whenever he gets a chance. At the country ball, his brooding and growing alarm over Olga's flirtations with Onegin seem to fill the entire ballroom--a merry chaos of wildly dancing couples, kids running around, pranks being played (the Met chorus shows its usual brilliance throughout the three acts). Lensky's outrage explodes with energetic physicality, only to turn into utter stillness at dawn, as he awaits his duel with Onegin and his certain death. In Lensky's  final aria, "Kuda, Kuda" (Where, where have they gone, the golden days of youth?) the tenor's habit of sliding into high notes from several notes below adds an air of sobbing to his good-bye to life and love.


Anna Netrebko at first looks disappointingly pudgy and ordinary on the Larin family estate, like someone who really doesn't want to be seen. But with just a few notes she soars like a swallow above the many Tatyanas I have watched and listened to, live and on film. Explaining to her mother (clarion-voiced Elena Yaremba) how much she suffers for the unhappy lovers in the novel she is reading, the force of feeling in her voice and acting is stunning and casts a devastating premonition over the story.  In this brief phrase it was already clear that Netrebko would do it again – make a new role her own in a unique and unforgettable way.

How does she do it? Both the diva and her conductor were asked this question in the intermission interviews. Both said: hard, hard work! Gergiev added that already at age 20 (she just turned 42) Netrebko learned any number of parts, sometimes in just two weeks, and impressed him with her unusual concentration.


First setting eyes on Onegin, Netrebko's Tatyana does not reveal ravishment, just a secret fascination that seems to paralyze her. Her body, however, betrays her. As if Netrebko (or her directors) had recently seen the ballet version of Onegin by the great John Cranko (reviewed in these pages), she follows on his heels like a spell-bound puppy.

The famous letter scene then unrolls her slow awakening to her troubled feelings. There is no bedroom here, no nightgown and night-cap. This Tatyana can't go to bed, she hangs back restless in the porch-room where the meeting with Onegin has taken place. Her feverish state and huge outbursts of unhappiness reveal to her that she is in love. This discovery is so momentous that Netrebko, in the swell of music, comes to a complete stand-still as if her heart had stopped beating. Then words come to her, the need to express the too-muchness, a literal itch to write, and she starts almost in Sprechgesang, half-speaking the unspeakable. She mounts the table and stretches over  it, scribbling, tearing page after page from her notebook. At some point she knows what she has to say and the room gets too hot for her. Out she goes into the night, to the birch trees at the back of the house, raises her arms and folds her hands behind her neck. It's a gesture of utter simplicity and yet of such eloquence that we can see passion running through her from head to toes.


Her hope that Onegin won't betray her confidence is sung in a small, touching, childlike voice, followed by the mortification that he might laugh at the "delusions of a naive soul." I can't remember having seen the rollercoaster of first love in such a way (German language calls it "heaven-high ecstasy – down-to-death affliction"), in such moment-by-moment believable abandon. In the end, Tatyana's realization that she will have to "perish in silence" unless she confesses her love, sung all out in ravished colors, exhausts her. Dawn finds her on the floor, the scattered and crunched-up pages around her. She seals the letter, still torn whether to hand it over to her nurse to be carried to Onegin's estate nearby. Both impatient and ashamed, Netrebko circles the nurse, turning her back to her, unable to face her and face what she is doing.

Waiting for Onegin's response, Tatyana sits on the same porch, at the edge of the stage, facing forward in a buttoned-up dress, while the peasant women outside are polishing apples. To all appearances, she does nothing, but her anxiety, her inner battle to maintain her bearings emanate from her like a black cloud. Onegin enters and nonchalantly starts his long lecture about young girls, superficial dreams and lack of control. He moves with ease around the porch while she stands glued to one spot, showing with hardly a movement the devastation of his words. All this is acted with minimal effort to optimal effect, and Netrebko proves once again her capacity to match the beauty and high emotion of the music with her voluptuous voice, her precise body language and  expressive face.


Unfortunately, Netrebko is not quite matched this time by her frequent colleague, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. Warner's concept of the opera serves Netrebko and Beczala well, whereas the protagonist suffers from an update that weakens his character and impact. For some reason, Warner has moved the story some 60 years up to the time of Tchaikovsky's creation of the opera, the 1880s, abandoning the cultural context for Onegin. In Pushkin's original prose poem (which the opera follows closely) Onegin is a would-be "Byronic hero," a man "proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection." (Lord Macauley) Onegin is a superficial, fashionable version. Dashing and arrogant, in an existential crisis of boredom, he is just the type to set young girls' hearts aflame with his worldly demeanor and foppish wardrobe. Tatyana, the bookish sixteen-year-old from modest country nobility, promptly sees the hero of her romantic novels and dreams in him.


Her sister Olga also discovers Onegin's charms. Olga is a different case of boredom. The light-hearted butterfly has been promised from childhood to Lensky, Onegin's friend, and by now takes his love declarations for granted. The romantic Lensky would have been a perfect match for Tatyana, but of course, opposites attract each other. (Onegin and Lensky are also a case in point). When Lensky has dragged him to the country ball at Tatyana's house, Onegin punishes his friend by showering Olga with inappropriate attention. Tatyana and Lensky both watch in horror, miles apart on each side of the stage, with not a word or gesture to recognize or console each other. A scene later, the duel with Onegin has left Lensky dead.


In Warner's and Shaw's staging, Onegin, the character who stirs up so much drama and passion, looks much the same as Lensky and does nothing to stand out as a young girl's dream incarnation. Byronic fashions are long gone. The romantic poet and the cynic appear as two equally nice, well-bred young men. Lensky is enthusiastic, Onegin is friendly and insensitive. (Kwiecien showed much more charisma in other roles at the Met, particularly as Enrico, Lucia's brother, in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 2009.) During the rejection scene, Onegin's true colors are allowed to show for a few seconds. He greedily bites into an apple during his sermon, as if the apple were a much more appealing object of desire than the love-struck girl in the room. But he can't quite resist her after all: he raises her mortified face and kisses her before strutting off with his apple.

In an intermission interview, Kwiecien tried to defend this toning down of Onegin by pointing out how much beautiful music the composer gave his protagonist. Do we have to infer that he can't be quite as bad and arrogant as he is usually considered? Pushkin professes a lot of tender sympathy for his deluded youth – and still doesn't see any reason to soften the cruel shortcomings of the man or change his destiny. Neither does Tchaikovsky. This is what makes them brilliant dramatists.


As if the director-duo had sensed that their main character was somewhat bland, lacking tension and drama, Act III turns on the gusher. At the Emperial ball, six years later, Onegin suddenly turns hysterical when he realizes he is in love with the now powerful, married Tatyana. The cold cynic falls apart in front of our astonished eyes and goes aground on the ballroom floor. Another odd idea of the director(s) precedes this one: Prince Gremin (sung with an impressive, but wooly bass by Alexei Tanovitski) confesses to Onegin how much he loves Tatyana, the rare, pure soul among the shallow courtiers. This intimate declaration addressed at Onegin is now partly made to Tatyana herself, and the reason is anybody's guess. Netrebko's Tatyana stands there at length, her back awkwardly turned to the audience and the camera, seemingly embarrassed, perhaps because she is being flattered and talked about in the third person. It is hard to understand that Netrebko's natural theatrical instincts didn't rebel against this absurdity.


Then, outside the palace, it is night and snow is falling – one of many exquisitely simple and moody settings by Tom Pye. Tatyana is wandering about, troubled. Onegin, his coat trailing off his body, runs to her out of the dark and goes aground again. The reference to the love letters he has been writing her, has been dropped by Warner even though this is an essential element in the reversal of the tragic love story. Kwiecien sings with great force and focus of suffering, but his Onegin has lost all dignity. Nothing is left that could tempt or seduce an ambivalent lover. He is groveling at her feet, in the snow, trying to grasp hold of her skirt. When she responds coolly, the unfortunate singer fumbles to get back into his coat. Now he looks like the anti-hero of the postmodern European stage (they always come in grey coats).


The scene would be way over the top if it weren't for the beauty of the setting and Netrebko's power. She finally has a glamorous look (after her rather dowdy country dresses and an over-done velvet ball gown in outré scarlet). She is wearing a flattering, dark redingote coat and muff, and a fur hat with a veil that recalls her elegant riding outfit in Lucia de Lammermoor on the same stage (reviewed in these pages). For once, the glossy publicity photos announcing the season opening don't exaggerate. They capture exactly what we see onstage.


Netrebko has one of her extraordinary moments when she mourns the happiness that once seemed so near, almost in reach. Her piano voice renders a whole depth of sorrow. Her face turns back in years to the face of an innocent girl; a childlike dream returns to possess her for the breathtaking length of a phrase. She still loves Onegin, who takes her tears as his well-deserved redemption. "Haven't I suffered enough?" he pleads. Netrebko stares at him, speechless: the years of her desperation have just been wiped out by the few days or weeks of his love-sick yearning. This stare would have annihilated any man except a narcissist like Onegin. She seems for the first time to take full measure of the man. Breaking her promise, scandalously leaving her husband for Onegin, who still has nothing to offer her? She looks at him long and hard, then seals the end with a kiss --a commanding, punishing kiss. Then she walks away into the dark, where a lady companion is waiting.

Photos - Ken Howard

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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog

©2013 Renate Stendhal
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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