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Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson in the title role of Tchaikovsky's
08 Feb 2009

Eugene Onegin at the MET

Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin is the first of the great line of Russian novels, passionately loved by all the literate of that most literary nation.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Tatiana: Karita Mattila; Olga: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Larina: Wendy White; Filippyevna: Barbara Dever; Onegin: Thomas Hampson; Lensky: Piotr Beczala; Triquet: Tony Stevenson; Prince Gremin: Sergei Aleksashkin. Conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. Production by Robert Carsen. Metropolitan Opera, performance of February 2.

Above: Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson as Onegin

All photos by Beatriz Schiller courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.


The problem with turning this classic into a romantic opera was compounded, though, by the poet’s ironic outlook, and this Tchaikovsky proposed to answer by changing the ending — by having the two protagonists admit their love and run off together. A friend of his sister’s took him to her garden house and, in the course of one of those long Russian summer evenings, argued him out of his resolve, convinced him to keep Pushkin’s classically balanced conclusion: as Onegin once coldly, preachily rejected the ardent young Tatiana, now, years later, when he has fallen in love with her, Tatiana coldly dismisses him. (No record survives of that conversation in the garden house, but what an opera it would make! — something earnest and chatty, like Dargomyzhsky’s Stone Guest or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri.)

In both Pushkin — where Tatiana simply states she will remain faithful to her marriage vows — and in the opera, where a rather more passionate debate takes place (because romantic opera requires passionate duets, and Tchaikovsky had denied himself one in Act I), Tatiana’s nobility in the teeth of her feelings, and Onegin’s despair, are made far more palpable in the music-drama.

It’s interesting to compare the two Onegins — novel and opera — to the two Thaïs, novel and opera, brought to our attention at the Met a few weeks ago. Anatole France was an ironist, and his novel about a courtesan who becomes a saint while the saint who converted her loses his faith is, frankly, a satire — in order to make a romantic opera out of it, Massenet had to invent its characters anew, and the degree of his success depends on whether or not you care for Massenet’s music. (I don’t.)

Pushkin was a sophisticated romantic, or rather, he had been one in his youth, and the plot of Onegin is his ironical view of the sort of young man he had been (or known), and the sort of woman he had loved. His characters are all great readers of French and English literature — he tells us just what each has been reading (Lensky aloud to Olga) — and their behavior owes a great deal to self-conscious affectation. Tatiana cannot even write her famous letter in Russian — she assumes a love letter must be written in French, her only model for such things. (Tchaikovsky changed that, of course.) Onegin identifies with Byron’s scarred, bored, doomed heroes even before he kills his best friend and goes into exile — and it is Pushkin’s joke that, having traveled the world like an aimless Byronic hero, he comes home to find he would actually have been quite happy living on a Russian country estate with the right wife. But she is no longer available — unlike so many society ladies, she is monogamous, and receives his overtures with distaste. We have had a hint of this — which Tchaikovsky retains for his opening scene — in her mother’s recollections of the novels she used to read (Richardson, Grandison), of the worthless man she fell in love with, of her arranged marriage to Tatiana’s father, of her contentment with “habit” over happiness. Like mother, like daughter: in the scenes that follow, we see the same story play out in the younger generation.

ONEGIN_Semenchuk_Beczala_41.pngEkaterina Semenchuk as Olga and Piotr Beczala as Lenski.

When Tchaikovsky dramatized this sixty years after it was written, as his sister’s friend pointed out, the novel was too well known and too well loved to alter its conclusion. At that, he had a far easier time than Massenet in making musically romantic figures out of his hero and heroine — because they were more romantic to begin with, or maybe he was just better at it. Too, failing to find the proper ironic tone for Onegin himself (he comes into his own as a character only in the last act, when he has abandoned his posing), Tchaikovsky undercut him by making naïve Tatiana the focus of Act I, doomed Lensky the focus of Act II, and giving the big aria in Act III to Tatiana’s elderly husband, a cipher in the novel. Onegin is the odd man out in his own opera; this can make him hard to portray sympathetically, though Dmitri Hvorostovsky achieved it at the Met two years ago (and on HDTV telecast), appearing callow in Act I and passionate in Act III as if he had indeed undergone a soul-transformation.

The current Met revival of Onegin, though sumptuously cast and gloriously sung, has the flaw that Thomas Hampson is rather too old, too saturnine, too gray — in manner and appearance if not voice — to portray the poseur of Act I. His acting is carefully judged, his singing suave (he’s in better voice than he was in Thaïs, where his affect hardly seemed that of a desert ascetic), but his grayness, his chilliness, cause one to doubt the romantic conversion. This is not fatal in so excellent a revival, but it does restrain one’s enthusiasm — not least because Robert Carsen’s minimalist production all but omits the social settings that Tchaikovsky thought so important to comprehension of the story: we focus on the individuals, and if they let us down, there is nothing to fall back on. I will discuss my problems with this staging below.

Renée Fleming scored one of her worthiest triumphs of recent seasons in the last revival of Onegin, but to my mind Karita Mattila is better. If you (as I do) usually prefer one of these ladies to the other, Tatiana will not change your mind — if you love both, you will be very happy. As she has shown in Jenufa and Katya Kabanova, Mattila has a particular affinity for young women troubled by romantic complications. In the opening scene, following Pushkin, we find her buried in her book among the birch trees, but her Letter Scene is a sensual awakening, and here the shining metal of her voice takes on a quality, one might call it, of adolescent idealism. This is certainly enhanced by her childish, clumsy movements, the trembling of her hand when Onegin returns her letter, make this a finished stage portrayal, but it is her hopeful, springing soliloquy that thrills, makes her a girl newly awakened to love, a heroine. The woman who appears in Act III not only moves and dresses differently, she seems to sing with a different voice, a thicker, more mature sound, a womanly voice as opposed to a girlish one. Both voices are beautiful, it is hardly necessary to state — but that she has thought out how to deploy them to make us understand two different Tatianas, girl and wife, is a feature of Mattila’s claim to be the greatest singing actress on the lyric stage today.

The young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who is having quite a winter replacing less sturdy tenors in Lucia and Rigoletto, sang a perfect Lensky — ardent, jejune, his mood flashing from ecstasy to despair, with a delicious, youthfully liquid quality to his voice and even a hint of Italianate sob. Olga usually makes no impression, but Ekaterina Semenchuk’s attractive presence and luscious Slavic mezzo made us notice her brief moment at center stage in the opening scene. Wendy White sang an effective Larina, Barbara Dever a most imposing Filippyevna, Tony Stevenson a rather uncharacterized Triquet, and Sergei Aleksashkin a stalwart Prince Gremin without having quite the authority to overshadow the lovers in the last act as a really thunderous Russian bass will often do. Jiří Bělohlávek led the Met orchestra in a sublime, supportive, lithely flowing and (a few brass blooples aside) exquisite account of this wonderful score.

So we come to Robert Carsen’s scenery-free production, on which viewers bitterly divide. The point of its bareness appears to be to focus the drama more closely on the principals to the exclusion of all else — the social backdrop against which Pushkin and Tchaikovsky have lovingly placed them, for instance. The score contains three extended dance sequences by which Tchaikovsky unfolds the story from rural simplicity to gentry interacting to the grand world, and these are, to say the least, underplayed here — bored-looking peasant women rake leaves, cramped choristers sing of the pleasure of dancing while unable to move, and against the aristocratic polonaise, a troupe of footmen redress Onegin in court costume, scenting his fingers and touching up his coiffure. Since the characters are social beings, whose motivations owe a great deal to appearances, I get Tchaikovsky’s point but not Carsen’s. True, one does not waste time during the name-day party trying to find the lovers in the crowd, but there is no pleasure to be seen in that cramped assembly. The dance music is intrinsic to the opera, and it seems unnecessarily affected not to permit dancing if the orchestra is going to play all of it. What the staging does is not to draw attention to the principals or their story — the opera and the singers have already done that — but to the stage director. Did we need that? Is anything worthwhile accomplished by it?

Still: an engrossing sung and acted Onegin, not to be missed; if possible to be seen repeatedly.

John Yohalem

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