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Tonight or Neva

Last night, the Met opened the 2013-14 season with a handsome, fairly conservative new production of Eugene Onegin by Deborah Warner that replaces the handsome, fairly conservative one by Robert Carsen. (The trend is clear.) The major singers were good, the lesser ones could have been better, the applause at evening’s end was polite and nobody carried on (aside from a brief, pre-opera gay rights demo in the Family Circle). All was serene as the Neva in midwinter between storms. Storms are undesirable to management.  

An experienced cynic is confronted with the passionate devotion of a romantic sensibility—that’s Eugene Onegin in a nutshell: Alexander Pushkin is the sophisticated poet-novelist, his work set to music by the far less cynical Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was so aroused by the story (which had been causing Russian hearts to swoon for half a century) that he wanted to change the ending, having the (now married) Tatiana run off with the (newly infatuated) Onegin. In a sense, we all desire that, just as we want Juliet to wake up before Romeo swallows poison. We want this tale to be ordinary, to end with smiles; that’s what the poet wants us to want. Then, as Gypsy’s Madame Rose no doubt advised him, he doesn’t give it to us.

The story goes that a great lady of more truly Russian faith took Tchaikovsky to the garden and reasoned with him, entreated him, pointed out that we just wouldn’t care about these two people if their love came to a dull, happy end, however briefly. No one can believe that Onegin, that avatar of Don Juan and Valmont and Julien Sorel, wouldn’t tire of Tatiana as soon as she succumbed—anyway, Tatiana doesn’t believe it, and I’m inclined to think she’s right.

Tchaikovsky’s opera doesn’t flatten Pushkin’s ironies but it rearranges things: The score gives more weight to romantic follies by setting them to unforgettable music. Lensky’s silly death becomes an icon of youth despoiled in its bloom; Prince Gremin, dismissed by Pushkin in two lines, becomes a major musical figure because his substance must make Tatiana’s loyalty credible. That’s the nature of the operatic beast, if you’re good at it. Tchaikovsky was even more “sensible” with Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, in the original a bitter tale with no romance in it, a story of monomania for wealth; that, too, became a fine romantic opera. Anna Netrebko has said she’ll think about singing Lisa in about ten years. I hope not. She sounds ready for it now.

It was Netrebko’s night. She’s still a beautiful woman, with a figure ampler than in previous seasons, her voice, too, has expanded to grand opera size without losing its quality or developing the thin or guttural habits of many another Russian diva. How has she combated that? My guess: Plenty of Italian vocalises in her ongoing training. She gives Tatiana’s emotional outpourings an intensity, a shimmering beauty that thrills the house, but she keeps lighter, brisker, bell-like tones for social interactions.

Warner—and not her sub-director, Fiona Shaw, I presume, since the snowy finale has been foreshadowed in all the Met press materials since last winter—is the sort of director who does not make vast changes in story or place or time (she’s set the piece in Tchaikovsky’s Russia not Pushkin’s, so the ladies wear bustles), but who can’t quite leave well enough alone. She has to do something to be sure we notice she’s been there, twiddling. So the first act is set, not in the elegant loggia or garden of a Russian manor house but in the farm buildings where new-harvested vegetables are sorted. This permits Onegin to underline his indifference to Tatiana’s feelings by squeezing a tomato or biting into an apple now and then. He concludes the scene by giving her a cynical kiss on the lips. (This is a very oral Onegin: He also noshes on a sandwich while preparing to duel with Lenski.)

Does that feel unnecessary? Yes. But Warner is biding her time, setting us up. At the very end of the opera, when a disdainful Princess Gremina rejects the now desperate Onegin (not on her own ground, in her study, but out in the wintry streets, in a handy colonnade that reflects that pair’s shadows), she gives him a long, sarcastic, “just-to-make-sure,” MGM production number kiss—the one on all the posters—and then runs off, leaving Onegin not so much in despair as puzzled.

Or so I infer. Is she just remembering Act I? Would she change her mind if he kissed well enough? No hint from Tchaikovsky, who didn’t consider this kiss in his scenario, or from Valery Gergiev in the orchestra, who simply stops dead for a minute or two. (How did Warner—or Netrebko—or whoever it was—persuade him to play along with this “tonsil-hockey is better than music” moment? He doesn’t strike me as easily cowed.) It’s an annoying, unnecessary moment, but at least Onegin has stopped stuffing his face.

Another problem with the staging was the duel, performed with shotguns rather than dueling pistols on a frozen swamp covered in romantic mist. (Great mist, somebody!) I’ve never heard of a duel with shotguns; at that range it would be insane. No doubt someone will cite an instance where shotguns were used, but for me it’s Hedda Gabler’s pistols or you might as well Indian wrestle. Or chess. Chess to the death. Very Russian.

Mariusz Kwiecien was in lustrous voice, dark and masculine, as long as the ironic Onegin held the stage, and he waltzes as well as he paces. Has he outgrown his bad habits at last? Only while he maintained his Pushkinian ironic distance. As soon as he lost his composure in Act III on remeeting—and adoring—Tatiana, his tendency to oversing, to bluster, to attempt to force a larger sound from his lungs than they are capable of producing was back. He seems to feel big emotions require bigger sound. As he is not capable of more sound, he would be wiser to take them quietly. He is far more effective, passionate or sinister, when he does not yell. These emotions can be put over, vocally, subtly, and he is too intelligent an actor not to know this. But passionate situations carry him away.

Piotr Beczala sang a fine, smooth, aw-shucks Lenski, rather like the one he sang in the Carsen production. Oksana Volkova made a good Olga; if she lacks the ill-repressed sensual blaze of Ekaterina Semenchuk, she wiggles a neat, flirtatious bustle. Elena Zaremba sang a capable Larina, Larissa Diadkova a rather wobbly Filippyevna—was she trying to sound ancient or has a distressing waver slipped into the sound of this admirable singing actress? John Graham-Hall sang the weariest, dreariest Triquet in my experience, and Alexei Tanovitski made an unimpressive Prince Gremin.

How many times has Gergiev conducted this opera? Far more than the Met has presented it (136), even counting Russian company visits. You wouldn’t know this from the score’s youthful fire on the present occasion, the way melodies danced from one instrument to another behind the social persiflage in which nothing was said and everything communicated. The dancing, by the way, was especially lively in the two party scenes, and a nice variety of ages and sizes seemed to be giving themselves up to it. (Of course, the upper classes at Petersburg parties did dance well—what else did they have to do?) The Met has pretty much discharged its corps de ballet, but the pickup artists under Kim Brandstrup’s direction made quite lively pictures of the Name-Day cotillion and the Gremins’ polonaise.

Tom Pye’s sets, with mirrors to extend apparent views, made much use of rooms opening into rooms, as if to emphasize that, in this opera, we often move from private to public personae. I did not care for the rundown barn and vegetable bins of Act I, but the Larins’ ballroom looked right and the pillars of St. Petersburg glimmered icily in Jean Kalman’s lighting. Chloe Obolensky’s costumes could hardly compete with the opening night crowd observing them, but Tatiana’s crimson number (a bit too imperial—she’s only a general’s wife, not royalty) and Olga’s two-toned party gown and blue afternoon dress played the proper role of making the characters easy to follow on a crowded stage.

Photos: Ken Howard.

82 comments

  • m. p. arazza says:

    JY’s mot -- “at least Onegin has stopped stuffing his face“ -- almost redeemed that kiss, an impulsive moment that provoked guffaws at the dress rehearsal but, judging from the descriptions here, must have been re-imagined for opening night — a silent “minute or two“?!

  • la vociaccia says:

    So, is this what we’re destined for every opening night? A “meh, it worked I guess” conservative production? I don’t even mind traditional productions, it’s just that they’ve all been so damn middling and forgettable, starting with Lucia in 2007.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Now you’re forgetting the photographer in the sextet, which upset people on here to such an extent that it got moaned about for what felt like months.

      • alejandro says:

        That production had bigger problems than the sextet. I never got the whoop-de-do about the photographer.

        The badly costumed fantasma, Lucia becoming the fantasma, the interminable set changes and the uninspiring set design that added nothing to the story . . . those things pissed me off. That production doesn’t do that opera service. It needs something leaner.

    • kashania says:

      I liked Zimerman’s Lucia and thought it was ten times the production that her overblown, pointless Armida was. But yes, when it premiered, the hand-wring and pear-clutching was quite something. When I finally saw it on PBS, I kept waiting to be scandalised and instead found myself drawn into the production. And I thought the photographer idea was cute.

      • oedipe says:

        Both the photographer idea and the men with open black umbrellas in the last scene were shamelessly lifted off the Andreï Serban Paris Lucia, where they fit the style of the production perfectly and made a great deal of sense.

        • kashania says:

          Interesting. I’d like to see that production.

          • alejandro says:

            Just Googled it and it looks like what I’d love to see for Lucia. There’s a clip of Dessay doing the mad scene from 2006 on You Tube.

            • oedipe says:

              Fly to Paris for a couple of days, Alejandro. It’s being revived right now by the Paris Opera, and you can even choose between two excellent alternating casts.

            • alejandro says:

              oedipe, if only I had that kind of money to just fly to Paris without planning it out a year in advance. I save for a year to get my eight family circle seats at the Met in August.

            • oedipe says:

              I know, I know, I was teasing you…

            • La Valkyrietta says:

              It’s cheaper to sing ‘Parigi, o cara…’ than to fly.

  • alejandro says:

    kahania, the production does look better on video, but it’s sort of a life sucker in the house. I should try to watch Dessay’s version of it if I can get it all on YouTube or somewhere online (I have no idea how one would do that) . . . Netrebko’s take on it was really horrid. I liked her Mad Scene ok, but oh, God, the sloppy coloratura elsewhere just ruined it for me.

    • kashania says:

      I didn’t find Netrebko horrid but she was definitely at the end of her Lucia days (and she was never ideal in the part to begin with). Still, I thought she did some lovely singing. I wish Dessay’s first Lucia (when the Zimerman production was new) had been captured on video. She sounded terrific in the broadcast of that opening night.

      Dramatically, I found Dessay lacking in chemistry or meaningful interaction with her colleagues (this is a re-ocurring complaint of mind with Dessay). On the other hand, Netrebko was dramatically more generous and she and Kwiecen really made something of their big scene.

    • kashania says:

      I forgot to add that your point about how the productions look on video is quite valid. Aside from the rare opportunity I have to see a Met production in person, all my experience of the Met’s productions comes from videos or the broadcasts. I’ve also heard that the Peter Grimes worked much better on video than on stage.

      • Porgy Amor says:

        It did. The DVD of the Grimes is a masterly editing-and-focusing job. I saw it that way, and I thought Doyle and his designer had very effectively conjured up a gloomy, claustrophobic, stifling environment where there was no privacy. With the musical values so high, I considered it grade-A work and imagined it had been one of the triumphs of the early Gelb period (I had not been reading reviews when the production debuted). I only found out later that it had come off diffuse and stillborn in the theater, and that the “advent calendar” seemed to limit the acting area.

        The Sonnambula also played better on television. But the cameras did not work any magic on the Ring, Faust, Le Comte Ory, Don Giovanni

        • kashania says:

          The only one of the Ring operas I saw live was Walküre and there was not much difference between the in-house experience and the broadcast (except for the occasional glimpse of the stage-hands working the machine from behind).

          I imagine that the Grandage Don G was even more vapid in person. I imagine the whole production just sort of sitting there like a handsome blob in-house.

          • alejandro says:

            Ugh. It wasn’t even that handsome. I saw it twice (I was taken the 2nd time so it wasn’t by choice) and I would be hard pressed to find a single idea in that entire production.

      • alejandro says:

        I thought Dessay and Tezier were on fire in 2011. I texted my dad after their duet saying “Holy Shit.” It was when the production took off for me. And then it didn’t really come back until the mad scene.

        I love the Peter Grimes and the below mentioned Sonnambula but I will confess I did not see them in house and saw them on video. I wonder what I would have thought of both in house. But the Sonnambula intrigues me in theory because I love meta-theater and the idea that Elvino and Amina’s relationship WAS the opera and when they broke up the score got torn and when they got back together it’s like the production they are rehearsing comes together. It may not have worked for most, but I found it very touching.

        • kashania says:

          I liked Tezier but was a bit disappointed because my expectations were very high. He sings just about the most elegant Yeletsky imaginable and while his Enrico was good, I wasn’t blown away the way I was with this:

          • Porgy Amor says:

            I felt an intense dislike for that production of Queen of Spades (oedipe and I disagree on this one, I know), but the singing and acting across the board were so good. If for nothing else, I have to give Lev Dodin credit for his work with the cast. I will never forget Irina Bogacheva’s Countess, alone, her long hair down, dancing slowly and gracefully in her white nightgown; the odd courtliness of Ghermann taking her hand when he enters for their fateful encounter; the way they freeze there for a few moments…the dance joined. Strange, isn’t it, how you can get a lasting memory out of something you thought was fundamentally ill-conceived, often tedious, and not easily recommendable? (I thought the same about some Marguerite moments in a far worse production, the Met’s Faust, but I suspect that was solely due to Poplavskaya’s acting. They would have passed for little with a lesser thespian.)

            Tézier is on another Queen of Spades DVD with Didyk and Magee, but it’s a boring production, and not as well conducted as the one above. In the aria on the newer one, I sense he wishes the conductor would move it along. I did like his Yeletsky(s) and his Albert (Werther — chilling, with Kaufmann and Koch) more than his Met Enrico, good though that was.

        • antikitschychick says:

          Oopsies, you did see the 2011 performance. Ma bad :P .

          Well the mad scene from her 2007 outing is also on yt :D . I prefer the 2011 rendition b/c even though there is noticeable vocal tear & wear, she gave such a moving portrayal of Lucia’s fragility and hyper-sensitivity w/o it being kitschy. Plus, she sang the heck out of the mad scene. She even sang a small bit of it a capella which is just insane.
          Also, it was her last performance of the role and one could sense that it was just in her bones by then; she lived with it and really made it her own. Plus, its clear from the brief backstage interview after the end of act 1 that she had a clear dramatic conception of the role, which she executed quite well. There are perhaps other equally impressive Lucia’s in terms of the vocal execution and dynamism but not as dramatically effective as hers, imho.

          • alejandro says:

            I will never forget that Mad Scene. Ever. I saw it in house. For all people say about her, the two times I’ve been fortunate to see her, I felt completely swept away by her performance.

            I hope to see her at Carnegie Hall when she comes for her recital.

    • antikitschychick says:

      OMFG Natalie’s Lucia is just out of this world. I saw her 2011 reprise of the role at the Met and in that same production on PBS and she was just spell binding. Most of it is on you tube. I highly recommend that you watch it. :D

      I didn’t like AN’s Lucia either. She had some good moments, namely the duet with Mariusz, but on the whole her performance came off as uninspired, and the runs were sloppy and labored.

  • manou says:

    I enjoyed the little I heard of Netrebko on the Met stream (going to the HD transmission on the October 5th), and so I have just booked to see her perform Iolanta in concert in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall in June 2015. The Brit contingent should know that the seats are selling fast despite being…not exactly inexpensive.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      This is kind of amazing that it’s on sale now with nearly 2 years to go. It is also by far and away the highest prices I have ever seen for that venue. And given her track record in my own experience (neck and neck with Harteros), I’ll believe it when it happens. That said though, I think it’s a wonderful piece and a role in which she will be absolutely glorious for years to come, so I’ve snapped up a couple of seats. Thanks for the tip off, Manou.

    • oedipe says:

      Comme quoi, countries differ an awful lot!

      This past season, the (excellent) Iolanta in concert with Netrebko at the Salle Pleyel not only did not sell out, but one could get discounted tickets at the box office right before the performance. On the other hand, Bartoli concerts sell out almost immediately…

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        I’m pretty sure Bartoli would still sell out very quickly in the UK.

        That said, DiDonato’s Drama Queen tour appearance in London, Florez’s latest recital, and Fleming’s most recent London recital were all far from sold out.

  • Camille says:

    Would some kind soul direct Mr. Tommasini to the Urban Dictionary so that he may acquaint himself with other, more current connotations of the word “TAP”?

    Hard to fathom how a professional wordsmith could be so clueless.

  • uwsinnyc says:

    what i’m not convinced of is whether this production is in any way superior to the one it replaced. Sure, it’s pretty, unobtrusive, and overall a success, but the previous one had a magical quality to its abstractness that I really liked.

  • La Valkyrietta says:

    In changing the score at the end, was Gergiev thinking of Marilyn?

    Wth the change, “But stiff back or stiff knees you stand straight at Fabergé’s…”

  • alejandro says:

    I enjoyed the performance last night with some caveats--

    1. I missed the Carsen production so much. One of the smart things about that production were the little vignettes with Onegin alone on stage before each act. That framed the story a lot more for me. I feel like we lose Onegin in this production until the end. Act One should be called Tatyana and Act Two should be called Lenski the way Warner/Shaw directed it. I just didn’t see how Acts One and Two added up to where Onegin ends up in Act Three. And there were those scene change pauses . . . they couldn’t figure out a set design that didn’t require them. I deduct points off any production that can’t figure out how not to stop the opera to change a set.

    2. Gergiev made the evening drag. A friend of mine who was at Monday’s performance said he picked it up a bit last night, but boy I felt like I was underwater at times.

    3. I was very moved by Anna. I’ve never seen her this intense and focused. Her Tatyana was heartbreaking. She really brought out the acting chops and made that character come to life.

    4. The kiss at the end . . . I was expecting to hate it but I was so moved. It was violent, terrifying, unforgettable. I wish the rest of the production had managed to rise to the emotional jolt of that kiss . . . and Anna’s deflated exit. I also don’t know enough about singers and operatic singing (especially baritones and basses) to comment, but I didn’t mind Kwiecen’s singing at the end. Actually he ignited in a way I kept wanting him to prior to the final act.

    5. People really wanted to applaud the set, which I found beyond bizarre.

    • grimoaldo says:

      “Act One should be called Tatyana and Act Two should be called Lenski the way Warner/Shaw directed it.”
      Yep, that’s the way it came across just listening to it on the broadcast too and I am not sure the reason is just the way the production was directed, Nebs and Piotr were singing beautifully, you sort of forgot Marius K was there even when he started to sing. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and everything but he seems to be a very bland, blah performer.
      “And there were those scene change pauses . . . they couldn’t figure out a set design that didn’t require them. I deduct points off any production that can’t figure out how not to stop the opera to change a set.”
      Yes, just ridiculous, inexcusable. Pathetic. Somebody should be fired.