The two Sisters
Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky: Eugene Onegin, The Met in HD Encore, Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, 8 October 2013.
The 2013-14 season of transmissions from the New York Metropolitan Opera started with a new production by Deborah Warner of Tchaikowsky’s greatest opera Eugene Onegin. This on the face of it had everything going for it. Directed by Fiona Shaw and conducted by Valery Gergiev, who we know can coax a genuine Russian sound out of the Met orchestra and with a cast headed by Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien, it came over as an interesting production with gripping music but failing to be the overwhelming operatic experience one could have hoped for.
The production inevitably invited comparison with the February 2007 production, one of the first to be transmitted live in HD to cinemas world-wide which immediately established this new way of experiencing opera for audiences unable to attend the live performance, the absence of the atmosphere of the opera house compensated by the ability to follow the action in detail through the use of close-ups and camera movement. Nevertheless in the early days, we still felt we were eavesdropping on a theatre performance. Comparing the 2007 production with 2013 shows how the medium has developed so that now, sometimes, we can view the opera as a purely cinematic experience or ‘ciné-opera’. Recent examples which I have reviewed include those as diverse as Rodelinda, Parsifal, and Maria Stuarda. On this occasion, thanks to the direction for TV of Gary Halverson (still unacknowledged in the hand-out), we could forget that it was being simultaneously performed in the opera house.
The immediate success of the HD transmissions was in no small part due to Renée Fleming with her uncanny ability to transform herself before the camera into the role, here of the besotted teenager, (an ability now shared by a few other singers) and the haughty Onegin of Dmitri Hvrostovsky.
Tatiana, living in the country with her mother and sister Olga, falls for Onegin, introduced by Olga’s fiancée Lenski, and writes him a letter declaring her love which is coldly rejected. At a dance to mark Tatiana’s name-day Onegin flirts outrageously with Olga arousing Lenski’s jealousy leading to a duel in which Lenski is killed. Returning to St Petersburg some years later he finds Tatiana married to Prince Gremin. Onegin falls for Tatiana but, though tempted, she now rejects him. He is left broken.
In Warner’s 20i3 version the action is moved from Pushkin’s beginning of the nineteenth century to the world of Chekhov at its end. This is almost as extreme a translation as OperaUpClose moving the Barber of Seville to Jane Austen’s England, replacing the poet’s and the composer’s depiction of the wide open spaces and relations between landlords and workers with the concentration on the relationships between individuals of the playwright (leading to the silliness of ‘shall we move in now, it’s getting cold’ when they are already indoors). The communion with nature depicted in the first scene and its contrast with the urban sophistication of the last Act distorts the balance of the opera.
But the main disappointment was the total miscasting of the two principals – Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin – to such an extent that my companion, not knowing the story, initially mistook the Olga of Oksana Volkova and the Lenski of Piotr Beczala as the leading protagonists. Netrebko’s operatic charisma depends heavily on her ebullient stage personality; when she is required to act out of character her voice itself is not sufficient to sustain the role. She made a valiant effort to portray the smitten teenager but at best came over as Olga’s elder sister and we could not believe her naiveté in the letter scene. Likewise Kwiecien had too much Polish charm to make plausible his cruelty to Tatiana and to Lenski. On the other hand, Olga and Lenski were admirably portrayed, as were the rest of the cast. Olga attracted the attention from the outset, reminding slightly of Lucy Crowe in her ability to hold it whenever on stage. Beczala gave a fully thought-out portrayal of the doomed poet, leading us to want to shout out ‘don’t go there’ in his developing jealousy and reducing us to tears in his final aria leading to his death in the starkly-‘staged duel. Larissa Diadkova was excellent as the nurse mixing loyalty and obedience with concern.
The lasting memory of this production will probably be the party at the Lorin’s, for clarity of its staging of the developing drama and the marvellous orchestral accompaniment to the dancing. St Petersburg Ball was also well staged, though again Netrebko did not fit the part of the older Tatiana either. I have heard Gremin’s monologue better sung but Alexei Tanovitski gave a moving interpretation. Kwiecien was much more convincing as the rejected lover than as the disdainful aristocrat!
14 October 2013