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The best Onegin, with Chekhovian overtones
on 20 January 2014
This production from the Metropolitan Opera must stand as at least the equal of the earlier Robert Carsen Met production with Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky released on DVD a few years ago. In my opinion this new production is superior by a nose, although I could not be without either.
The production is directed by Deborah Warner, with later assistance from Fiona Shaw, and their experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain enriches and enlivens the theatricality of the piece. In the first act particularly the setting - which is in the summer house of the Larin estate - suggests a Chekhov play: the playing area is wide and shallow, with the upstage area seen only dimly through windows or an open door, and the lighting is at once suggestive of autumn sunshine filtering through trees through the windows and an enclosed, even slightly oppressive, interior. The blocking for the characters is shapely and intelligent, and the story line flows through their movements in this space as much as through what they are singing. It is brilliantly conceived. Whereas the earlier production with Fleming and Hvorostovsky was essentially impressionistic, with an open stage covered with autumn leaves for this section, and an inserted prop set into the same setting for Tatiana's bedroom in the letter scene, Warner's production grounds the characters in their lives, and in the manners of the Russian upper classes of the time.
It is of course the music which carries the day, and there is no question that this cast is superlative in every respect. Tatiana in Netrebko's interpretation is not so socially poised as Fleming's, more at odds with herself, and somewhat chafed at the small circumference of her life. Netrebko's voice has darkened and carries a richness which has been approaching over the past two or three years, but which has come in this production to its proper place, but this is a rounded and living performance, passionate, serene, fiery, and resigned by turns. Tatiana can be sung as a lyric soprano role, almost indeed as a soubrette in places in this first act, recalling that Tchaikovsky wrote this opera for students to perform - if one can believe it! - but there is certainly equal justification for Netrebko's performance here, with Tatiana moving into her maturity, yet still holding her sense of the possibility of romance in life she finds in the books she loves.
Marius Kwecien as Onegin is stunning, less imperious and more impulsive than Hvorostovsky, but with a youthful vigour in the voice, unlike Hvorostovsky's dark and sophisticated timbre. Larissa Diadkhova as Filippievna is ingratiating, with a rich contralto, and mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba (who played Olga in the earlier production opposite Fleming) gives Madame Larina real substance and presence as their mother. Oksana Volkova, as Olga, is bright as a cricket in the first act - so bright in fact that in her teasing of Tatiana one might feel impelled to give her a slap - and believably stricken and mystified by Lensky's stubborn jealousy which leads to his death later in the opera. Piotr Beczala's beautifully ardent tenor and his convincing acting are perfect for Lensky, and somewhat superior to the lovely singing but slightly stodgy acting of Ramon Vargas in the earlier production.
There are many unforgettable moments, but the two scenes which completely enthrall are the two most private ones between Tatiana and Onegin, in the first part of the opera when Onegin returns her letter, and in the last scene when he is rejected. Indeed, the last five minutes of this production are among the most breathtaking moments, both musically and theatrically, I have ever seen on an operatic stage.
There are two slight flaws: the use of rifles rather than pistols for the duel seems drastic; after all, pistols might misfire or miss, but with rifles the outcome can't be hoped away. Alexei Tanovitski, who sings Prince Gremin in the last scene but one, is very pleasing in his character but somewhat woolly of voice; Sergei Aleksashkin in the earlier version is superior there. But these are small points, and neither of them is more than a quibble. I make them here as much to avoid the charge of being completely starstruck as for any other reason.
All of this richness would go for nothing were the orchestra wanting, but Valery Gergiev's conducting is masterly. Some early reviews suggested his accompaniment was somewhat slack, but if that were true it had come to itself by the time this performance was filmed. Gergiev's accompaniment is always flexible and responsive to the moment; this is neither waywardness nor lack of control, but the sign of a living interpretation. The urgency and pungency of his conducting, matched by his keen attention to orchestral and motivic detail, and the singing line he accords the lyricism of the score, are superior here even to his wonderful performance in the earlier Met production.
If you love the opera - and it bewilders me that there are some people who have seen it and do not - buy both this and the earlier production as well. If the budget will not stretch, then this is the first recommendation for any DVD of Eugene Onegin.