Starry Met ‘Onegin’ Vies With LGBT’s Torch in the Plaza

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Act II of Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin,' a new production by Deborah Warner, at opening of Metropolitan Opera's 2013-14 season (Ken Howard)
Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin,’ a new production by Deborah Warner and design of Tom Pye, has Valery Gergiev in the pit.
Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 season-opener (Photos by Ken Howard)
By Susan Elliott

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera is a glittery affair, with gala goers of both sexes dressed camera-ready at every turn. A few celebs came down the red carpet Monday night – actors Brook Shields and Patrick Stewart, rocker-turned writer Patti Smith, former Queer Eye TV host Carson Kressley – but most of the extra-musical attention was centered on the LGBT protesters out on the plaza.

An opening night three-peater, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Tatiana.
Opening night three-peater Anna Netrebko stars as Tatiana.

They were there to rail against the anti-gay policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Met connection being the night’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Putin supporters Valery Gergiev in the pit and soprano Anna Netrebko on stage. The irony of Russia’s most-cherished, gay composer being realized in performance by two fans of an anti-gay-regime leader led writer and critic Jason Farago to circulate a petition on the web in August. He demanded that the Met dedicate this particular opening night to gay rights. (As of this writing, there are about 9,000 signatures.)

That never happened. As General Manager Peter Gelb pointed out in one of many interviews, the Met has never dedicated an opening night to any cause throughout its 130-year history. (His official statement: “As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.”)

In the end, a number of protestors did show up on the plaza with leaflets for passers-by and sound bites for the assembled media. And several ticket-holding hecklers loudly espoused their cause from the Family Circle just prior to the overture. Amid boos from the audiences, they were asked to leave – and did.

But neither had any significant effect on the proceedings.

At her country home, Tatiana is dazzled by visitor Onegin (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) in Act 1.
Tatiana is dazzled by Onegin (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) in Act 1.

Following the traditional pre-season “Star Spangled Banner,” Gergiev began a long-night’s journey into one of the repertoire’s most glorious scores. All of Act I occurs in a large, rustic-look room, apparently a conservatory of some kind, located on the country estate of the Larin family in the late 19th century. The production, a collaboration with the English National Opera, which gave the premiere in 2011, has had its share of ups and downs; director Deborah Warner pulled out of the Met engagement at the last moment for medical reasons. Her collaborator, actress/director Fiona Shaw, jumped in at the eleventh hour, but other commitments limited her time for tweaking. She had yet to see Act II when she left town ten days before the opening.

Warner and her scenic designer, Tom Pye, are clearly of the opinion that less is more, especially in Act I, the entirety of which occurs in the aforementioned Big Room. Its back wall is essentially six large, clouded windows, through which one glimpses a hallway and, beyond that, a courtyard. In this way, various amounts of activity – servants coming and going, Olga frolicking in the courtyard – provide a subtle backdrop of movement upstage to counterbalance the often stationary singers.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin - downstage inaction against upstage action.
Kwiecien as Onegin – upstage action offsets downstage inaction.

The Act II party scene is similarly layered, and the Act III ball as well, with the stage divided by a row of columns, behind which dancers dip and swerve to the score’s abundant supply of dance music. Again, upstage action to offset downstage inaction.

Historical accuracy for time and place is commendable, but the abundant earthen colors of off-white, gray, black, olive, and light brown in Acts I and II, for both costumes and sets, and the often-dim lighting (perhaps it reads as subtle, but only to the front rows) cast a pall until Act III, and by then it’s too late. This is a story at once supremely romantic and melancholy. Pushed too far in one direction or another, it can either be soppy or saggy. In this case, it was the latter.

Gergiev’s tempos didn’t help. In fact, they nearly came to a halt in the little tribute by Triquet (John Graham-Hall) in the Act III party scene. No wonder Tatiana looked annoyed at, rather than appreciative of, his overzealous efforts.

Singing in her native language with a voice that has grown darker and richer with time, Netrebko demonstrated that she is indeed ready for more lyrical repertoire than she has finessed in the previous two Met opening nights with Anna Bolena and L’elisir d’amore. (She made history as the only soprano ever to have sung three consecutive opening nights in the hallowed hall.)

Kwiecien with Netrebko, who has moved into heavier roles.
Kwiecien with Netrebko, whose voice has grown darker and richer.

But musical prowess aside, she spent much of the evening with her head down, away from the action, less the wistful dreamer than the sad, lonely maiden. She’s quite animated in the “Letter Scene,” of course, but the staging is awkward; still in the conservatory, instead of a bedroom, she writhes in the agony and ecstasy of love on the floor, rather than in bed. Daybreak arrives and Nanny comes to “waken her” as if in her bedroom, not in the conservatory.

In truth, Netrebko is the better haughty matron of Act III than she is the naïve, childlike innocent of the first two acts. Partly it’s simply how she comports herself and partly it’s her size, especially compared to Mariusz Kwiecien’s competently sung but hardly imposing Onegin.

Between our depressed heroine, slow tempos, and drab colors, this Onegin never really ignited. Piotr Beczala tried hard as Lenski and showed an attractive quality of voice, as did Oksana Volkova , a suitably perky Olga. Alexei Tanovitski’s wide vibrato made Prince Gremin’s Act III aria a bit of a disappointment. And once again the staging – Gremin is meant to be singing to Onegin but spends most of the time holding Tatiana and addressing her in the third person – missed the point. Elena Zaremba sang Madame Larina; Larissa Diadkova portrayed Tatiana’s nurse as a suitably sympathetic character.

This marked both Netrebko’s and Kwiecien’s Met role debuts. Too bad they couldn’t have lighted up the stage, and the staging, a bit more.

Note: For details on additional performances, click here.

Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com

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