Met’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ Mires Fine Singing In Swamp Of Busy Excess

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Igor Golovatenko in the title role and Ailyn Pérez as Tatiana in the Metropolitan Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera’s March 25 revival of Deborah Warner’s 2018 Eugene Onegin staging evoked mixed feelings. By and large, conductor James Gaffigan and his singers delivered musically quite well in a manner promising that the show will only continue to improve during the run through April 14. The fervent ovation after Tchaikovsky’s brilliantly impassioned final scene, with smooth-voiced Igor Golovatenko’s titular antihero vainly beseeching the talented Ailyn Pérez’s lovely, first-ever Tatiana, was well deserved.

But the production remains ponderous and overstocked with extras; long pauses interrupt dramatic flow between scenes. This staging replaced the simple, swift-running Robert Carsen enterprise of 1997, still in welcome use at other companies. Warner’s production comes from the English National Opera, like far too many Met shows. No one theater or director (David McVicar, a dozen and counting!) should so constantly be the source for another major company’s work. Warner is a fine director, certainly more insightful than McVicar. There are some splendid character touches, such as Tatiana dropping her book upon Onegin’s entrance, Olga perusing Lenski’s latest love poems during his first aria, and the (unscripted but telling) kisses the leads plant on each other’s lips at key junctures. But Warner’s view of the piece seems skewed through the lens of the general post-World War II British materialist take on Chekhov and Gorky.

Ailyn Pérez as Tatiana in the Letter Scene in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin.’ (Photo by Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera_

Certainly the costumes, largely beautiful as they are, evoke the 1890s or 1900s more than Pushkin’s time. And the stage is often just too busy. Onegin was initially written for conservatory performance, and though adapted for larger stages — including a notable dance component, here consistently underwhelming in Kim Brandstrup’s rather grudging response to some terrific and highly contrasted music — benefits from a sense of intimacy and focus on the central romantic couples. Yet Warner seems to be channeling Gosford Park: The gorgeous opening scene, scored for two women onstage and two off, drowns in servants performing tasks. Worse, repeated incursions of “cute little kids” into Tatiana’s name day party — to me, a provincial directorial gambit to win audience indulgence that merely stole needed focus from the principal characters’ shifting emotions.

A topical specter haunted this evening: — the production’s 2013 season-opening premiere, which witnessed demonstrations against its conductor and leading lady, Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, as supporters of Vladimir Putin. At this tragic time in post-Soviet history, it was salutary to see artists of Ukrainian, Polish, Estonian, and Armenian nationality or origin working together with several Russians as an artistic team. Four singers remain from the original cast.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Olga and Piotr Beczała as Lenski in ‘Eugene Onegin.’ (Photo/ Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala has kept himself in remarkable physical and vocal shape. If his voice has turned somewhat darker as he’s moved into challenges like Lohengrin and Manrico, his Lenski continues to exude youthful idealism and hurt. He sang beautifully, evoking the still-sovereign late-career Lenskis of one of his idols, Nicolai Gedda. What more praise can there be? If Gedda managed a bit more liquid float in launching the concertato ensemble “V vashem dome,” Beczala delivered dynamic gradations and well-sculpted lines throughout, ringing out excitingly at climaxes and acing the famous and affecting aria “Kuda, kuda.”

Every inch the professional, Larissa Diadkova, now in her seventies, offered a very engaging, verbally specific reading of Filippyevna, albeit with her world-class mezzo-soprano inevitably diminished. Even nine years ago, Elena Zaremba sounded too vibrato-ridden for Larina, who should be a generation younger than Filippyevna not only visually but aurally. Richard Bernstein (Zaretski) evokes old-school Met comprimarios in that he manages a complete character portrait in very limited stage time (and very solid vocal resources).

Pérez started this season with very impressive work in the Verdi Requiem. Her Tatiana was utterly credible and endearing in the earlier two acts in a way that the empowered Netrebko of 2013 was not. Perez cut less majestic a figure than her predecessor in the Petersburg Act, and not just because the burgundy dress suited Netrebko better. Pérez remains girlish in both demeanor and sound, and the final scene’s challenging music found her lyric soprano working hard, nearing the end of a long evening. Gaffigan’s tendency to slow tempos may not have helped her here. The scene has four high Gs, traditionally floated; after two rather pressured attempts, she managed the last two beautifully.

Golovatenko pulled out all the stops here. He was much more animated than the traditional Russian-trained Onegin. From the start, he sang with remarkably clear, even tone, utterly secure except when interpolating at the top of his initial arioso, condescendingly rejecting Tatiana’s advances. I heard complaints that Golovatenko wasn’t a “sexy beast” kind of Onegin like Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Mariusz Kwieceń. He doesn’t have to be: What matters is that the naïve Tatiana sees in him an urbane, confident man, traits that the Muscovite baritone supplied. These central portrayals, already treasurable, will surely grow even more as the run continues.

French-Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan, who joined the Met as Maddalena in this year’s new Rigoletto, gave a lively, responsive performance as the flirtatious Olga. It’s a good rather than a great voice, personal in timbre but lacking ideal tonal focus. Estonian bass Ain Anger also joined the company this year, as Pimen in Boris Godunov. Sometimes, as with Anja Kampe’s 2020 bow as Senta, the Met waits too long. Anger’s instrument — remarkable when first heard at the New York Philharmonic twenty years ago — is now somewhat grayed and nasal, though his Gremin projected dignity, and the show-stopping aria’s very lowest notes proved impressive. Tony Stevenson furnished a capable, mercifully unhammy Triquet. Gaffigan is a gifted conductor; the playing, if often rather slow, was proficient. Tchaikovsky’s orchestral introductions to the quieter scenes emerged best. As usual these days, the male choral voices sounded fresher than the women.

As it happens, March 24 marked 102 years to the day from the first performance of Eugene Onegin at the Met, with Claudia Muzio (Tatiana), Giuseppe de Luca (Onegin), and Giovanni Martinelli (Lenski) under Artur Bodanzkyin italiano. Muzio’s impassioned Letter Scene and Martinelli’s  somewhat Verdian “Lontan, lontan,” with high interpolations, commemorate this production on YouTube. The Met Archive Database, usually scrupulous about such claims, describes this as the “United States Stage Premiere,” but I find that unlikely. In 1920, émigré opera troupes, having escaped the 1917 revolutions, were already performing in schools and union halls in areas of high Russian immigration. We need a comprehensive history of such organizations, which certainly introduced many Russian and Czech works to this country.        

The Met’s Italian Onegin played eight shows in two seasons before falling silent. New York City Opera mounted the work in English (1946-48) with Vera Bryner (sic), Yul Brynner’s sister, and Brenda Lewis as Tatiana. The opera returned to the Met in style: a picturesque Peter Brook production opened the 1957 season, remaining in use for 25 years. Rudolf Bing had hoped to lure his new star Renata Tebaldi, La Scala’s 1955 Tatiana, to lead the cast. But his policy dictated less mainstream works (Arabella, Wozzeck) in English, and Tebaldi demurred. Dimitri Mitropoulos assembled a substantive cast: George London, Lucine Amara, Richard Tucker, Rosalind Elias, and Giorgio Tozzi. Henry Reese’s awkward translation (“Onegin, I don’t need to tell you/How much, how much I love Tatiana.”) was another matter, and finally — after Queen of Spades in 1972 and the new 1974 Boris Godunov, the Met’s first-ever ventures in Russian — Tchaikovsky’s opera was heard in the original language in 1977’s revival, with at least three Slavs aboard: Teresa Żylis-Gara (Tatiana), Gedda (Lenski, a classic portrayal in any language), and Ukrainian-born Andrij Dobriansky (Zaretsky). In this year’s production, the non-native soloists’ level of Russian is quite high: Beczala and Anger are virtually perfect, and Pérez, if understandably not matching her Onegin in verbal shading, evidently gave the phonetics serious study.

In 1957, Brook and designer Rolf Gérard introduced spurious “atmospheric” falling snow in the final scene, which transpires in a drawing room in the Gremin palace. In Warner and designer Tom Pye’s current staging, the snow falls again. The whole production has a curious relation to indoor and outdoor space. Act One’s three scenes — meant to be, respectively, in the Larins’ garden, in Tatiana’s bedroom, and again in a more distant garden on the estate — all take place in the same ground floor servants’ kitchen, with full-length doors. We lose almost all sense of the essentially agricultural basis of the Larins’ world, and the crowded, large-scale sets for their estate undercut the needed inherent contrast with Act 3’s lavish palace in the Imperial capital.

What’s more, one wondered during the Letter Scene — appealingly acted and beautifully vocalized by Pérez, though greater coordination with Gaffigan is required to fully capture its emotionally motivated, stop-and-start rhythms — why on earth the noble family’s virginal daughter is allowed to sleep on a mattress in the servants’ kitchen, with scores of men about and the outer door open. Then, in the final scene, one wondered how (and why) the same young woman, by now the Princess Gremina, a cosseted leader of court society, managed to elude her staff and guards and sneak out to meet Onegin in a public park. He’s her husband’s relative and a member of noble society, not — like Ghermann in Queen of Spades — a desperate outlier who’d be denied entrance to her home. That opera’s Winter Canal-set penultimate scene is probably what makes directors and designers yearn for falling snow at Onegin‘s close. Warner and costumer Chloé Obolensky do deserve credit for not dressing, as many do, the ill-fated lovers in their final confrontation in their ball attire: The text makes clear that Onegin has been stalking Tatiana for weeks after their re-encounter. Snow is warranted in the Duel Scene, where we finally get a sense of the outdoors, even though the blasted heath with spindly trees suggests a completely different aesthetic, that of Caspar David Friedrich, apt for the German Romanticism-obsessed Lenski’s striking death.

Whatever cavils the production calls forth, this Onegin provided much to enjoy. The Met dedicated the performance to Joel Revzen, an international conductor long on the house staff and an early loss to COVID.