Cher Public

Same steppes, different dancers

? today than Peter Mattei’s? Has Anna Netrebko ever sounded better? Is this not one of the greatest operas ever written? 

I remember not being crazy about Deborah Warner’s ENO production when it premiered at the Met at the beginning of the 2013-14 season. Warner withdrew due to illness and her long-time collaborator Fiona Shaw was invited to mount the Met version. However, it turned out that Shaw wasn’t available during a substantial portion of the understandably fraught rehearsal period. Unsurprisingly, this Onegin was tepidly received on Opening Night perhaps also due to nostalgia for the much-admired Robert Carsen production that had been dumped to make way for Warner’s.

When that season’s casts were announced I was dismayed that Netrebko was paired with Marius Kwiecien for the opening, while a later series starred Marina Poplavskaya and Mattei. I saw both couples but I couldn’t help wishing that Netrebko and Mattei had sung together instead, although Poplavskaya in her last (ever?) Met portrayal was a compellingly wounded if vocally wayward Tatyana. But due to the unfortunate continued illness of Dmitri Hvorostovsky who had originally been scheduled for this season’s revival, I finally got my wish and the team of Netrebko and Mattei did not disappoint.

Onegin must be one of the saddest operas in the repertoire—no one is happy for very long in this adaptation of Pushkin’s famous poem. Tchaikovsky’s soaring, heart-breaking music plunges its listeners directly into the hearts of these unfortunate souls. The shy, bookish Tatyana’s “love at first sight” for Onegin is brusquely rebuffed by the worldly roué who only awakens to her allure after she is married to another. His introverted friend Lenski loves Tatyana’s sister Olga, but Lenski’s foolish jealousy prompts him to get into a duel with Onegin during which, of course, the poet is mortally wounded.

When Netrebko first took on the role of Tatyana it was reported that she didn’t feel a great kinship for the lovelorn country girl, but I wonder if she hasn’t rethought that stance. Her portrayal several years ago seemed unfocused and tentative but has since deepened considerably. The voice has continued to grow and darken, but on Saturday she kept it light for the first scene before flooding the theater with radiant sound in an exceptional Letter Scene. However, I continue to dislike the overly-histrionic staging of that crucial episode—with Tatyana traipsing about the stage frantically scribbling pages in a notebook and then scattering them all over the floor.

Needless to say she looked stunning in her striking red gown when she appeared as the Princess struggling to maintain her composure upon seeing Onegin again. Warner sets the opera’s final scene outdoors as snow falls and there Netrebko infused a controversial long silent kiss with intriguing ambiguity. Was this Tatyana’s one chance to kiss the man she had loved for years or was it an opportunity to torture this man who had once broken her heart but was now desperate for her love?

His portrayal less harsh and less effete than Kwiecien’s, the strikingly tall Mattei proved an excellent foil to Netrebko. His delivery of the “sermon” in response to the young girl’s impetuous letter was surprisingly warm and benevolent making his eventual turnabout more credible. The baiting of Lenski at the birthday party started playfully until it whirled out of control resulting in a duel that he had little stomach for. His distraught embrace of his dead friend’s body brought the second act to a wrenching conclusion.

Mattei convincingly captured a difficult duality in the scene at the ball in St. Petersburg where he is gobsmaked by the “new” Tatyana. He invited the audience to wonder whether he really loved her or whether she was simply his latest attempt to distract himself from his empty and melancholic existence. Usually cool and elegant, Mattei’s Onegin becomes frighteningly kinetic after his encounter with the Gremins running after Tatyana and repeatedly falling to his knees at her feet before collapsing in despair at the final curtain.

Apparently Mattei was ill during his appearances as Rossini’s Figaro at the Met earlier this year (which I missed), but he was in superb voice Saturday. His buttery mahogany sound flows effortlessly enveloping the listener, and one wondered how Tatyana didn’t melt during his chastisement as it was ravishingly done capped by an exquisite soft high note (Kwiecien took a lower option on the broadcast of the first performance of this run). Sometimes one forgets the voice’s power but Onegin’s cry of anguish at the very end rang out magnificently.

Elena Maximova who had made her debut as Olga in 2013 opposite Poplavskaya and Mattei returned with a vivacious and well-sung portrayal, as did Elena Zaremba as a dithering Mme Larina. Veteran Larissa Diadkova’s subtle and compassionate Filippevna made one look forward to each of her appearances. If Tony Stevenson’s Triquet missed the wistful elegance that others like Michel Sénéchal had brought to the role, he looked happy to be out of his Rosenkavalier Innkeeper’s drag for a night. Richard Bernstein’s Zaretski grabbed one’s attention despite his distracting entering and exiting during Lenski’s aria.

Alexey Dolgov might have seemed a controversial choice for Lenski but I enjoyed his modest, nebbishy interpretation sung with a pleasingly plaintive tenor. For once his aria sounded like a poet’s cry from the heart rather than a superstar tenor’s chance to grab big applause. I hadn’t enjoyed Štefan Kocán’s Gremin several years ago, but this time it was better, sung with some gravity although his insistent vibrato can be grating.

Joel Revzen, in his Met debut, deputized well for the ailing Robin Ticciati conducting an intense, impassioned performance and drawing sumptuous playing from his orchestra. There were only a few coordination problems, mostly in the choral passages during the party scene, but otherwise he supported his singers beautifully and the many dance numbers bloomed thrillingly.

Tom Pye’s controversial sets vary from the evocative Larin estate and desolate plain for the duel to a puzzlingly bare stage containing only large pillars for both scenes of the third act. Warner’s production, as revived by Paula Williams, struck me as more effective, less awkward this time although odd details still jar such as using rifles for the duel, but this committed, attuned cast made the best of it and the result was a gripping music drama.

Although many will be disappointed at missing the Netrebko-Hvorostovsky pairing, I predict this Saturday’s HD of Onegin will be a great event. And, yes, it is one of the very greatest operas.

For those who can’t wait until Saturday one take a listen to a wonderful live Onegin I posted last year from the Bolshoi’s visit to the Met in 1975.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

  • Thank you for a wonderful review, Christopher. I was especially glad to read that Mattei was sounding so good. I was concerned after reports of his recent Figaro.

  • southerndoc1

    Thank you for the review.

    It’s striking how over the past few decades, Onegin has moved from a fringe piece (in the West) and become a regularly revived audience favorite. It really seems to be an opera for our times.

    • Rick

      I also enjoyed the review.
      Southern Doc, I wonder what you base you view of Onegin being a fringe piece in the west until the last few decades. Just look at the Met where it was done in 1957, 1958 (even on tour which would seem to indicate that it was not considered too “fringy” for Middle-America, 1959, 1964, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1985 and so forth. Covent Garden only saw it in 1971 prior to the last three decades so there you might be right. But to my knowledge the opera was quite popular in Germany, at least from the 1960s where it was sung normally in Germany (Fritz Wunderlich and Herman Prey, for instance, sang its male leads).

      • H_Badger

        Agreed. I remember seeing it in Omaha in the 1990s….

      • I have recordings of Onegin with Prey and Wunderlich and a terrific one from Vienna in 1955 with Rysanek, London, Dermota, and Frick.

  • Liz.S

    Robin’s still “ill” (the only info we get from the Met) and Revzen conducts tonight.
    I wonder if it’s the back problem again… I’m so concerned…

    • Rick

      Dear Liz, I wonder why you put “ill” in inverted commas/quotation marks? This would normally be used to mean that the person is not really ill but absent for some other reason. And yet you refer to a back problem, which indicates a real physical illness. is there something I have misunderstood?

      • Liz.S

        Rick -- sorry if I gave a confusing impression. I meant to highlight the only intel we have is that short and plain word and nothing else on the 2nd day of his absence. As you said it can mean anything ;-) though in this case I don’t have any reasons to doubt he’s actually ill. I’m concerned about the nature of his illness -- could it be something that is easily recoverable or something that has more serious implications? -- I don’t know.

        His back problem compelled him to withdraw from Glyndebourne and other concert obligations last year. It’s very worrisome if the problem should persist at this early stage in his conducting career

        • Rick

          thanks for the explanation. After President Trump, I am even more alert to confusing or wrong uses of “” (c;

  • Olivero Fan

    I sobbed out loud when Mattei cradled the lifeless form of Lensky. At first I didn’t think I was going to like Dolgov, I thought his voice was too small. He won me over and he and Mattei made a great pair. Dolgov being small of stature came off as a “younger brother”. He had a certain sweetness and naivete that was quite appealing.

  • Nelly della Vittoria

    In the house for it now--still no Robin, sadly!

  • swordsnsolvers

    On tonight’s Met stream, William Berger is currently talking about Pushkin’s great achievements in PROSE in Eugene Onegin…. facepalm!

  • MisterSnow

    In honor of Ms. Malfitano’s birthday, this terrific performance of the final scene

    • southerndoc1

      That performance was a real career peak for both Malfitano and Croft -- I don’t know if either of them ever did anything that topped it.

      • Cameron Kelsall

        Putting aside that statements like these are almost always wildly subjective: You clearly missed Malfitano’s Emilia Marty then.

        • Williams

          Her Salome at the Met was pretty darned memorable too.

        • southerndoc1

          Starting a sentence with “I don’t know” does imply a degree of subjectivity. Good pick up.

        • steveac10

          And her Antonia. The best I have ever heard live. She had the kunstdiva levels of dementia down pat, even when her stimm was at its peak.

          • Olivero Fan

            Jean Kraft!

      • MissShelved

        No one mentions any more recent highs for Mr. Croft — an underrated singer in my mind. Thoughts?

        • A couple of years ago Croft, who had been born and raised in Cooperstown, NY, did a terrific job as Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Glimmerglass festival. A singer I had admired over the years in a variety of roles at the MET revealed himself as a fine song and dance man, wonderfully adept at Meredith Wilson’s rapid patter as well as the lyrical love songs.

        • Cameron Kelsall

          Underrated? It always seemed like he was THE house baritone back in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s. And his performances usually seemed lazy and uninspired to me. I’ve enjoyed his recent comprimario performances, though.

          • Gualtier Maldè

            Lazy? Uninspired?? I don’t know when you saw Croft, but his early Figaros, Count Almavivas and Valentins in “Faust” were high energy and world class.

            • Kullervo

              I always thought it was curious how much of a stark contrast his singing was to his brother’s. Beyond the voice types, they seemed to emerge from completely different schools of vocal style, as if they had grown up on opposite sides of the world.

          • JR

            Duane Croft started out great, but as he progressed to larger roles, sounded pushed and bark-y. He went from someone I looked forward to seeing to become a disincentive to attend.

            • Cameron Kelsall

              Croft was already a firmly established artist by the time I started attending opera with regularity. So I clearly missed his early prime.

        • southerndoc1

          For a couple of years, Croft was the highest paid singer at the Met, through a combination of a moderately high fee and a lot of performances. I think he had some serious sinus problems that affected his singing.

  • QuantoPainyFakor

    Fine review indeed. Thinking about old sets with new singers. The new Salzburg Easter Festival “Die Walküre” is a huge accomplishment for all of the participants. Anja Kampe was at the top of her game, including Olympian feats of stamina to bring her Brünhilde to life. She seems to nudge the pitch at the top of her range in place with sheer will- and muscle power. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding earned him a thunderous ovation for his very nuanced singing and a characterization worthy of the best of Tarentino’s villains. For better or worse, there was so much detail work in every measure, every phrase, from stage and pit. Harteros gave all she could but reminded me of Ännchen von Tharau, assaulted by Hunding’s brutal clawing at her vagina. Thieleman seemed in high spirits after each act and extended a warm hand shake to his extra set of hands in the prompter’s box. Wotan’s immense wolf fur would warm the coldest Eskimo. Schneider-Siemsen sets were rebuilt from his designs for the 1967 version of the Salzburg Ring cycle. The video of the telecast of the new Baden-Baden Tosca is also interesting to study. Not trash, but very Euro!

  • Rick

    Interesting that at the same time as Ms Netrebko is having a great success as Tatiana, not the most dramatic or vocally challenging (as far as I know) part in the repertory (but a wonderful part to sing and act, I would think, for the right singer), and is returning to Violetta, a very demanding sing but not normally connected with the most dramatic of voices, she is planning not only Maddalena and Aida but also Salome and Abigaille in the next few years (as per operawire) -- and I believe Turandot has also been reported.

    Well, I guess she knows best -- and she did manage to surprise the nay-sayers with Lady Macbeth that neither ruined her voice nor were a failure (quite the opposite, I understand).

    • Yige Li

      You can listen to the whole interview here.

      As I replied somewhere else about this (so, it’s not targeting your comment), I just copy it here:

      If one actually listened to the interview linked in the article, not just reading “Ah, Netrebko is going to sing Abigaille”, one can hear her very straight discussion about Aida--the last scene is hard, but since it is high, should be easier for her, however, she probably not has enough dramatic power in the 2nd ensemble of 2nd act, still the rest should fit her voice well. Also, I remember, in 2014, when she took on Lady Macbeth, in one interview, she said because the orchestra writing, she could sing Lady Macbeth but not Abigaille then. Later she noticed that the ensemble part by the end of Act 2 was the hardest part for her. Her voice has grown more since then, and she did Lady Macbeth again last December with great success. So, I would say she knows very well about her voice and the challenge she faces. It’s not the “oh, she’s out of her mind thinking herself a dramatic soprano” situation.

      • Rick

        Thanks a lot for that additional information, very interesting