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.