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No business like snow business

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is his masterwork and its themes of social convention and unrequited longing surely struck a deep chord in a composer who, in late 19th century Russia, was gay and had to conduct himself carefully.

I’d like to say a brief requiem for the Metropolitan Opera’s last production, brilliantly designed by Michael Levine and directed by Robert Carsen. Its strong use of color and abstraction brought an easy focus to the unabashed romanticism and melancholy of this work. 

The very handsome replacement, which is a co-production with the English National Opera, debuted on opening night of this season and seems, on the surface at least, to be more cinematic in style. In spite of the mountains of detail in the photo-realistic sets and costumes—to quote Tallulah Bankhead—“there’s a lot less here than meets the eye.”

Much was written in these pages, and the media, about Director Deborah Warner withdrawal due to medical necessities and her partner, the grand and glorious Fiona Shaw, stepping in at the last moment to midwife the proceedings. Even Shaw had a tight schedule to keep and departed prior to the debut leaving the cast to an assistant with a production book from the ENO. Probably best then that the Met and our friends at Deutsche Grammophon chose to release to home video not the livestream of the opening night but the HD transmission of the matinee nearly two weeks later when everyone had a chance to settle in after a few performances.

Of course the raison d’etre of this whole affair is Anna Netrebko’s first Tatyana at the Met, having enjoyed a great success in her role debut the previous April at the Vienna Staatsoper .  It’s interesting how the 17-year old girl of Pushkin’s novel in verse tends to be a late career choice for many sopranos. It’s a big sing over a large orchestra, no doubt, and quite a few star sopranos have waited until they were 50 or damn close.

When Debbie Voigt, who does the pre-game and half-time show, asks our Anna why she’s singing Tatyana now her blunt reply is,”I wait for when I’m ready”. Glad are we of that for she certainly shows she’s up to the task at hand with a beautifully rendered portrayal, not only musically but from an acting standpoint as well.

The first three scenes take place in the same sunroom on the Larin estate and I can only assume that this was a selling point of economy in a production this grand although it makes little sense dramatically. Its relentlessly shiny mylar floor stays with us throughout.

It’s a pleasant surprise to find the luxury casting of Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina, especially she was the Olga, Tatyana’s older sister, in the previous HD transmission in 2007. Funnier still that I found her at that time, shall we say, a bit long in the tooth for Olga but now too youthful looking to play Madame. She’s beautiful and touching in this role, most especially when she comforts her daughters after the horrible confrontation in the party scene.

To have Larissa Diadkova as the nanny Filippyevna, is an embarrassment of riches, though she all but disappears into her character’s severe hair and plain make-up. Her opening duet with Madame Larina is always one of my favorite moments in this piece and they bring it off beautifully. She also plays the role completely straight with none of the pseudo-comic, comprimario schtick we’re often subjected to.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with so many singers close to the source here the interactions take on an uncommonly conversational quality at times. The very young Olga of Oksana Volkova is an especially strong proponent of this style and her first little aria with its couplets benefits from her charming and spontaneous delivery. It’ll be a voice to watch for too since, in spite of the fact that she’s lithe and apple-cheeked, she’s got chest voice like a bulldozer.

Piotr Beczala finds the perfect straight-arrow bookworm in Lenski, making his belligerence in the party scene when he feels betrayed all the more frightening. He too is especially vivid in the conversational portions of his role and his Act II aria before the duel is sung to great emotional effect treading lightly on the side of the lachrymose.

When Aunt Debbie asks our baritone at the break why he enjoys singing Onegin, Mariusz Kwiecien points out, with maybe a tad too much candor, that it is a leading role after all.  Not surprisingly, his characterization is self-assured to say the least; by the modern day Bro-code his Onegin would most certainly be labeled a douche. Maybe he’s not as stentorian as some of the baritones we’ve encountered in this part, but that’s all for the better. He’s relaxed and louche in his early scenes and even ends his aria of reproach to Tatyana on a lovely mezzo-piano. In the last two scenes it does become a bit much with the histrionics amped up but I point the finger at the director there more than Mr. Kwiecien.

Speaking of the last scenes it would be asking the universe for far too much if we had an absolutely stellar cast from top to bottom now wouldn’t it? Darwinian theory takes a human form in Alexei Tanovitski as Prince Gremin. He’s either suffering from a ghastly case of stage fright or has been mistakenly informed he’s entered a yodeling contest

Netrebko comes to Tatyana looking fresh and youthful and she’s believable as a meek, young girl who knows her mind. Her singing in the letter scene finds her in equal parts delicate and righteously strong in the same thought. She has a deliciously quiet “Winterstürme”  moment towards the end when she opens the glass doors on the backyard in the moonlight. Though much of her singing is excitingly powerful she does takes her time on some phrases, singing them quietly, creating a quality of introspection I can’t recall ever hearing before. She ends the scene exhausted, on the floor, and having gone through so many dramatic transitions at that point it’s no wonder.

Her entrance in the St. Petersburg act finds her singing in a glacial piano as befits her new stature and it’s a magnificent piece of vocal stage craft. Her red velvet couture gown with train might seem excessive even by the standards of the Romanovs and she looks strikingly like her great compatriot Galina Vishnevskaya at certain angles.

Naturally once the fires have been stoked in the last scene she lets fly and she does come off the voice once or twice for a high note but I’m sure it can be blamed on the heat of the moment at the end of a long performance. It takes a strong woman to pull off the finale of this staging and Ms. Netrebko is that woman. Her portrayal is completely thre- dimensional and I think the most successful I’ve seen of this character.

My problems with the staging are several. It’s aggressively choreographed to no end. Act I finds the field workers doing what looks like an Apache dance in the Larin house, I know not why. The following scene at the name day party is good but once we’re at the ball in St. Petersburg the Écossaise looks like some frantic predecessor to the Lindy Hop.

The duel, fought with shotguns(?) ends with Lenski falling forward(?) after getting it with both barrels. Oh, and Onegin shows up for the duel munching what looks like a Subway sandwich. Product placement at the Met, have we come to this?

The last scene takes place in a snowglobe which means that set designer Tom Pye gives us two opening settings with hyperrealistic design and then two more scenes of essentially abstract design. Onegin starts the last scene immediately on his knees in front of Tatyana in a state of high emotional torment. It’s the beginning of the scene, for the love of Pushkin… where has he got to go from there?

I also have to add that all of the orchestral introductions are accompanied by cinematic presentations that aren’t even close to the artistic level of any of my nephew’s video games and they overpower and belittle the great music that they accompany.

Maestro Valery Gergiev is driving the Rolls Royce in the pit and at the break he speaks of Tchaikovsky’s music being, for him, honest and truthful and not sentimental and that’s exactly how he plays it. He also says that as a schoolboy they were made to memorize the entire Pushkin. His is a beautifully balanced reading, perhaps a tad heavy on the string basses here and there, but the Met Orchestra plays with a vigorous impetuousness. They’re bright and clean and full of passion as are Donald Palumbo’scChorus which has never sounded better.

The costumes by Chloe Obelensky and most especially the lighting by Jean Kalman looked absolutely magnificent on the Blu-ray I viewed, giving the presentation a cinematic feel. DTS-HD 5.1 audio was perfectly balanced and lots of subtitle options  I’ll return to this disc again for its excellent singing and superbly crafted characters and Anna, of course. It’s a keeper.

22 comments

  • armerjacquino says:

    Lovely review, thank you.

    (Shaw and Warner, btw, were an item once but have been nothing more than professional collaborators for over a decade. Shaw wasn’t parachuted in as ‘director’s girlfriend’ but because she knows the way Warner works better than anyone else. Whether that was a good idea, given she was contracted elsewhere- well, discuss. But thought it was worth clarifying)

  • Krunoslav says:

    The Tallulah quote is very apt!

    ” It’s interesting how the 17-year old girl of Pushkin’s novel in verse tends to be a late career choice for many sopranos. It’s a big sing over a large orchestra, no doubt, and quite a few star sopranos have waited until they were 50 or damn close.”

    Of whom are you thinking here: Freni and Fleming? Bit too broad a generalization, I think.

    Not true of Kurz, Muzio, Lehmann, Novotna, Reining, Welitsch, Vishnevskaya, Jurinac, Rysanek, Amara, Shuard, Tebaldi, L. Price, Cotrubas, Kubiak, Zylis-Gara, Milashkina, Marton, Tomowa-Sintow, Kasrashvili, Lear, Benackova, Gorchakova…

  • Krunoslav says:

    Plus, one missed any mention of the performance’s linguistic and vocal zenith: the imperishable Triquet of John Graham-Hall.

    • 98rsd says:

      His performances were the only ones I’ve ever seen where the Triquet went without applause.

      Anybody remember Jean Dupouy in the role at Carnegie Hall in the role? Sensational vocally.

      Years from now I’ll remember Graham-Hall, too. But not for the same reason.

  • Poison Ivy says:

    Thanks for the review. I saw this on video and thought it played much more beautifully as a video than when I saw it in the house (dress rehearsal). In particular I was stunned that sets that looked dull and washed out in the house looked so vibrant and pretty on video.

  • papopera says:

    Not convinced that it is Tchaikovsky’s masterwork. I feel Queen of Spade is superior to it, at least equal in inspiration an opera that I adore.

    • grimoaldo says:

      This is the first time I remember that I can truthfully say “I agree with papopera”.

  • DeepSouthSenior says:

    What an excellent review! Thank you very much. Even as a lightweight Parterrian, I feel duty-bound to disagree with a couple of points. I’ll be back when I think of them (or make them up, which is just as much fun).

    Say what you will about Anna Netrebko, she and Natalie Dessay are perhaps the greatest “stage animals” of our generation. Whenever and wherever she’s on the stage, she simply owns it.

    • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

      Owning a stage and being a stage animal are not the same thing.

    • Big Finn says:

      Surely Ms Mattila excelled at Met in 2009 in the Carsen production!
      This clip is from 2001, she’s 41 and looking 30:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeqD21HSbvw

      • phoenix says:

        Yes, Mattila may have looked like 30 but she sounded like 60. I could never figure out what was so special about her voice or technique, but she was a good musician and certainly could act with her voice, as ugly as it was. The only time I ever liked her was as Katya Kabanova.

        • williams says:

          Oh My! I do recall her a ravishing Lisa way back when Moshinsky’s (sp?) Queen of Spades premiered. One of the best nights of the 90′s; Heppner in superhuman voice, Hvorostovsky debuting meltingly and a haunting Rysanek breaking through the floor. Matilla had a top notch instrument then.

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Mattila has never truly been free of technical issues, but for me the instrument has always been very special and very beautiful. It’s got a bit of a hole in the middle now, and is rather screechy at the very top, and her problems with legato are increasingly pronounced, but she gave some amazing performances as Chysothemis, Elsa and Lisa that were jaw-droppingly good from a purely vocal point of view.

      • phoenix says:

        each to their own -- and in their own time & place -- I’m used to being in the minority so it doesn’t bother me a bit
        IMO Mattila was a better singer than, let us say, Diana Soviero. But if you are speaking of musical (or unmusical), both Mattila and Soviero, in physical presence and voice, looked and sounded artificial & calculated -- the antithesis of the romatic heroine as I see her (I couldn’t imagine either of them putting their love for a man above their own selfishness). I only saw Mattila twice: at her first Eva in Meistersinger at the Met in the 1990′s -- very well sung with articulate projection of volume but unfortunately with forced, unnatural legato & an abraisive tone & presence. Later on I saw Mattila’s Katya Kabanova -- each calculated phrase was full of meaning -- skillful acting -- the ugliness of her voice suited her interpretation. Memorable. She could have been a stage actress. Why didn’t they give her the Nadja Michael roles?

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

    The Volkova chest voice reference is unfortunate. In Rigoletto she was simply inaudible.

    • DeepSouthSenior says:

      I strained to hear Volkova in Rigoletto last November at the MET. The sublime quartet sounded like a trio (Hvorostovksy, Polenzani, Yoncheva).

  • Maury D says:

    I think I shall be a drama queen and never watch this, as opening night was my last night in New York. But I do remember Netrebko’s letter scene as quite perfect, and the introspective moments were, as you say, unusual or unique. And very lovely. There’s one phrase in particular but I’m blanking on the words at the moment.

  • antikitschychick says:

    dare I say, I enjoyed reading this review more than I enjoyed parts of the performance I saw :-P . The bit about the Apache dance was especially funny. Thanks be to Patrick Mack.

    AN did a great job with this role. It would have been interesting to compare this to a pre-bb performance had she decided to take it on earlier in her career. Obvs she can achieve much more in terms of the vocal aspects of role now, but, in terms of the characterization, it would have been nice to see her acting more spontaneously…her perf here, though extremely heartfelt and powerful came off as a bit too “studied” at least to me.

    I wonder if the Met asked her to go on for the Boheme HD. I think that would have been ideal casting. Based on the clips I heard on yt, Opolais did a formidable job considering the circumstances but Mimi does not sound like an appropriate role for her. Her tone lacks the warmth and richness in color for it. Still, she was a trooper for agreeing to do it and I commend Gelb for trying his best to salvage the performance and letting a budding artist take those sorts of risks. Grigolo has a pleasant enough voice for Rodolfo but I thought he was over-emoting and trying too hard in every aspect, (nerves got the best of him perhaps?)still, I respect his enthusiasm and his willingness to leave the popera/cross-over stuff behind in favor of more serious artistic pursuits. Good for him!(apologies for veering off-topic!).