The Met Streams Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Friday, July 10 

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin ~ 2Hrs 53Mins

Starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała, Mariusz Kwiecień, and Alexei Tanovitski, conducted by Valery Gergiev. From October 5, 2013.

For its second streaming of this wonderful Tchaikovsky opera, the Met has chosen Deborah Warner’s production from the 2013-14 season. Even though they are separated by only six years, the two Onegin productions are very different. The first one (streamed on March 22), was Robert Carsen’s innovative and visually stunning production which used an almost bare stage beautifully flooded with colored lighting effects in place of conventional sets to define spaces, moods and seasons. It starred Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ramón Vargas and was widely praised for both its cast and its production design. This evening’s production, with a new generation of equally talented singers, has been described as ‘atmospheric’ – and even as ‘drab.’ Both casts are excellent, and while I prefer the earlier Carsen sets and production design, I do like tonight’s cast very much and especially its younger, more ‘natural’ stars. The Russian libretto was a daunting challenge for both Renée Fleming and Ramon Vargas (which they rose to with admirable grace), but which, of course, Anna Netrebko and this cast did not have to face to the same degree. 

In this production, the appealing Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien (we’ve seen him in Roberto Devereux, The Pearl Fishers, Lucia, Don Pasquale and just last Friday as Don Giovanni) is the dashing but aloof Onegin, a bored aristocrat; the Russian soprano sensation, Anna Netrebko (we’ve already seen her in too many roles [11] to mention!) is Tatiana, the bookish, love-struck young dreamer who falls in love with Onegin; Polish tenor Piotr Beczała (we’ve seen him in Manon and Rigoletto) is Lensky, the impulsive, romantic poet who is engaged to Tatiana’s sister Olga. Oksana Volkova is Olga, Elena Zaremba is their mother, Madame Larina, and Alexei Tanovitski is Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s eventual husband. Russian maestro Valery Gergiev conducts.

The tragic story comes from the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name. It gives us one of opera’s most sympathetic heroines: Tatiana, an intelligent but naïve adolescent girl, rejected by the arrogant man who is the object of her passionate first crush. She nevertheless blossoms into an elegant, rich, and aristocratic woman who eventually must return the favor of being rejected when the two meet again years later. The score is a melodic tour-de-force, beautifully capturing the many shades of its characters’ turbulent, conflicted emotions as well as treating us to wonderful Tchaikovsky waltzes and even a lively Polonaise that will set your toes to tapping. 

The opera is constructed as a succession of “lyrical scenes” which tell the story through snapshots of significant events from Tatiana’s life. They take us from her sheltered country upbringing as a naive young girl pouring out her feelings for Onegin in the achingly romantic “Letter Aria;” to her irresistible birthday party ‘Waltz’ at the beginning of Act 2; to Lensky’s haunting ‘Kuda, Kuda‘ sung by the doomed tenor immediately before he is tragically killed by his best friend Onegin in a dual neither of them wants; to the wonderful, elegant Act 3 ‘Polonaise’ showcasing Tatiana’s grown-up life as the sophisticated and aristocratic wife of Prince Gremin; and finally, to her wrenching second farewell from Onegin. You should be humming wonderful Tchaikovsky melodies well into next week.

The opening scene is usually set in the Russian countryside in a garden of the Larin estate where peasants are celebrating the harvest and we meet the young sisters Tatiana and Olga, as well as their fretful mother, Madame Larina. In this production, the action actually takes place in what looks more like a rather utilitarian sunporch that opens onto a grove where we can see the workers coming in from the fields. The sisters sing a happy love song together and it becomes clear that the shy, bookish Tatiana only knows about ‘love’ from her novels while the gay, adventurous Olga, who has a beau, is more than willing to join in any celebration. They are interrupted when Olga’s intended, the poet Lensky, brings his visiting friend Onegin to meet the neighbors. Onegin is initially surprised that his reserved friend Lensky has chosen the extroverted Olga, rather than her more subdued elder sister, as his fiancée. Tatiana for her part is immediately and strongly attracted to the dashing Onegin. Following their afternoon together, Tatiana stays excitedly awake all night writing a letter expressing her feelings to him. The next day she waits anxiously for his response, but when he does arrive, he makes it clear that he is not the man for her and warns her to be less emotionally open with men in the future.

As Act II begins, a ball is being given in honor of Tatiana, whose name day it is. Onegin is irritated with Lensky for dragging him to the party and for hounding him to do his gentlemanly duty and dance with Tatiana, which he grudgingly does – most awkwardly. But then he decides to avenge himself on Lensky by dancing and flirting with the much livelier Olga. Lensky is astounded and becomes extremely jealous, which only makes matters worse as Onegin asks Olga to dance again – and she accepts to punish Lensky for his irrational jealousy. In front of all the horrified guests, Lensky renounces his friendship with Onegin and challenges him to a duel. 

Early the next morning as Lensky waits for Onegin’s arrival at the appointed site, he sings his supremely beautiful Kuda, Kuda regretting the terrible turn things have taken but unable to change them now. Onegin, too, bemoans the senselessness of their sudden enmity, but it is too late; neither of them will speak up to stop it and Onegin tragically kills his best friend.

The last act takes place more than five years later in St. Petersburg at a sumptuous palace ball. Onegin has just returned to the city from years of aimless wandering in Europe – trying to find himself and forget his friend Lensky. His older cousin, Prince Gremin enters the glittering room with his lovely young wife. Onegin is deeply impressed by her beauty and noble bearing. When Gremin tells Onegin of his great happiness, gratitude and love for Tatiana, Onegin suddenly realizes that the stately beauty is indeed the woman he once rejected and to his distress that he is in love with her. In an ironic twist, it is he who now is determined to write to her to express his feelings and try to arrange a meeting.

When she agrees to just one meeting, Onegin arrives, cursing himself for his youthful obtuseness and begging Tatiana to flee with him. She admits that she does, indeed, still love him and explains that they once had a brief chance for true, romantic love, but that time has passed, and she is now a married woman who cannot, and will not forsake her responsibility. “We came so close,” Tatiana sings, with nearly unbearable sadness. Onegin implores her to relent, but she bids him farewell forever, leaving him alone and in despair.

Photo Credits

1. Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien as Tatiana and Onegin in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

2. Anna Netrebko as Tatyana dancing with Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin with Piotr Beczała as Lensky watching from the doorway in “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, 2013. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times.

3. Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Piotr Beczała as Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, 2013. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

4. Anna Netrebko as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

5. Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien as the title character of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, 2013. Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

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