At the dawn of the turbulent 19th century, there lived in Russia a poet who is known today as “Our Everything.” Alexander Pushkin was, quite literally, the Russian Shakespeare, wielding language with beauty and precision as he told the stories that would change Russian literature. And, of course, it helps in immortalizing a poet if he dies a tragic death in a duel at the height of his glory. Pushkin’s most famous work is perhaps Eugene Onegin, a novel written entirely in verse, which combines a love story with pointed social commentary, told with verve, wit, and rhyme. It’s no surprise the story was adapted by one of Russia’s more prominent composers, Tchaikovsky. Though, as an opera, the story must eschew many of the pointed historical and literary allusions and biting social criticism that don’t exactly translate onto the stage, the opera draws on the thread of romance running through the text, and that, combined with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music, is more than enough for a splendorous operatic work. It also helps, of course, that the libretto keeps much of Pushkin’s original verse (considered some of the best in the Russian language) to combine with Tchaikovsky’s alternatively melancholy and soaring melodies.
The Metropolitan Opera has a distinguished history of staging Eugene Onegin. Their last version, featuring somber colors and abstract décor, starred Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky alongside the Met’s darling, Renee Fleming. That version, after being broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera’s venerable Live in HD program, made it way to DVD. Just this year, that staging was replaced by a newer one by Deborah Warner, also broadcast as part of the Met’s Live in HD and, like its predecessor, joining the Met’s collection of DVD titles. In keeping with this tradition of casting only half of the starring couple as a native speaker, the Metropolitan Opera has, this time, chosen Anna Netrebko to sing alongside Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. The opera’s story is a simple one: despite the title, it is much more the tale of Tatiana Larina than of Onegin. Tatiana is a young, romantic country girl, having read too many books and dreaming of love. One day, fatefully, the world-weary, cynical, and eponymous Eugene Onegin comes to visit, and she falls in love with the disenchanted anti-hero. Since the Metropolitan Opera ceaselessly bills this opera as a tragic story of “ill-timed love,” it wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to state that Onegin does eventually, tragically, fall in love with an older, more experienced, and unfortunately married Tatiana.
This new staging of the “timeless tale” is younger, “sexier,” flashier than its predecessor. It works – and it doesn’t. While the previous staging was perhaps too austere, with blank walls and an empty stage of scattered yellow leaves, giving the Romantic tale a much too modern abstract feel, this staging thankfully makes the story feel like it’s taking place somewhere other than a void. There’s actual décor – with actual houses and furniture and things. Sometimes, though, Warner’s staging has the feeling that it’s trying to run as far away as possible from the abstractness of the previous version, stuffing the stage full of people and props.
Sometimes those people and props look like a collection of clichés about what Russia looks like, carefully gathered by an American who’s never been abroad (in one scene, for example, a number of peasants file onstage, carrying Russian Orthodox icons and performing Russian dances, for no reason that seems actually discernible). In short, while the story at times gains a certain tangibility from its concrete setting, it also loses some of that dignified nobility that the former, Fleming-Hvorostovsky version had. As for the stars of the show, they’re excellent in their own way. They’re not an improvement over the previous version simply because they’re so different, and yet, despite the polar differences, both feel like workable adaptations of Pushkin’s novel. For example, the previous staging starred the silver-haired
Hrovostovsky as a world-weary Onegin, crushed by ennui; his austerity is replaced by Kwicien’s Romantic charm. He’s much more of a dark-haired Byronic hero than a despondent anti-hero, but it works. He may not have the cynical dejection that Hvorostovsky’s powerful voice carried, but he’s charming, believable, charismatic, and entirely fitting with the aesthetic of the rest of the opera. Though not a native Russian speaker, his pronunciation is also near-impeccable despite the difficulties of the Russian language. Anna Netrebko is equally stunning, especially in her versatility, both vocal and physical. In the first act, she astounds as the naïve, romantic country girl; the test of any Tatiana is the first act’s Letter Scene, in which Tatiana writes to Onegin to reveal her love, just like the test of any Juliet is the balcony scene. Netrebko rises impeccably to the challenge. A native Russian speaker, she avoids tripping over the complexities of the language, instead moving from the soft, uncertain, longing notes to the ecstatic crescendos as she spills her love onto paper in a sort of spiritual ecstasy – all of which combines with her acting to perfectly capture the youth and hope of her character.
In the final act, she’s equally stunning as the poised aristocrat – Netrebko’s beauty here lends itself particularly well to the lush costumes, even if they seem off by about half a century. Here, too, she sings beautifully, for the simple reason that if Anna Netrebko were not to give a stunning performance, the result would be a warping of space time due to the largest anomaly known to humankind. Most importantly, however, in an opera carried so much by the relationship between the two leads, Netrebko and Kwicien have chemistry. It’s patently, undeniably tangible from their very first scene -where they lock eyes, Tatiana stares, wonders, longs- and there is just that special something that passes between them, indescribable but there. While the chemistry between Hvorostovsky and Fleming was that of a relationship between an older, cynical man who had a strange sort of affection for a younger, yet special, girl, this chemistry reads like the unassailable tension between two Romantic heroes. Kwicien is a fine complement to Netrebko’s romantic beauty, with that blend of romance and cynicism – just cynical enough to work, just romantic enough to be charming, both to the viewers and to the young Tatiana.
This starring couple is rounded out by Lensky, whose character is pretty much the Romantic cliché incarnate: he’s a dreamy, lovelorn poet, passionately adoring of Tatiana’s more down-to-earth sister, Olga. Eventually, the wandering, brooding bard is killed in a tragic duel, in what feels almost like an eerie foreshadowing of Pushkin’s own end. Incarnated in this version by Piotr Beczala, he unfortunately lacks that ethereal romance, appearing instead as a rather quotidian individual in a perfectly starched white suit. There’s just no aura of poetical mysticism about him, not even in his rendition of Lensky’s signature aria before his tragic death. With Lensky’s death, the opera speeds along to the third act, and the opera’s climax, which, despite everybody’s efforts, is just disappointing.
Like much of the rest of the opera, it tries very hard to be “sexy,” and this is the one scene where it doesn’t work, achieving nothing but an overly melodramatic scene, and yes, I do mean too melodramatic even for opera. Set outside in the St. Petersburg winter instead of the compromising setting that is Tatiana’s home, this scene is, at the very least, furnished (unlike the previous version, with nothing but a chair on a Kafka-esque empty stage). Despite the beauty of the scenery, with tall columns and falling snow and a beautiful skyline of St. Petersburg, the scene is utterly destroyed by Onegin rolling around on the floor, comically tearing at his clothes as he struggles to imbue his words with pathos.
The scene is barely saved by Netrebko, who, in the face of this melodrama, manages to be contained and yet dramatic. Her impeccable polished voice and painstaking approach to every single word creates the most important impression of all: the candor that has always been part of Tatiana’s character. She’s poised and contained – and this time it’s her who’s dictating to Onegin, alternating between the strong, high notes of accusation and the dreamy, candid, and melancholy tone of her voice as she reminisces.
Unfortunately, though, due to the comical nature of Kwicien’s performance, the chemistry between the two leads that’s been present throughout the entire opera flits away, leaving a disappointing climax to an otherwise very respectable and satisfying rendition of Eugene Onegin. In the end, I’m going to line this DVD up on my shelf next to my other, Hvorostovsky-Fleming version of the opera, and which one I watch when will be decided by nothing more by my mood. They’re both equally deserving of that space on my DVD shelf, both excellent in their own way, distinguished not by quality but simply by difference approaches….even if I might avoid the final scene of this version more often than not. This DVD also includes, like any Live in HD DVD, short interviews with the singers and director, offering their opinions on the story, though these do not in any way form a remarkable addition to the opera itself.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B004QDRW0S,B00H540KMM,B003YMMQOY]