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Chekhov’s Eugene Onegin?

Anti-Putin protesters try to steal the show in what is already a strange Met production.

By 9.27.13

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The Metropolitan Opera opened its new season on Monday night with a star studded production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which was enlivened by a spicy cocktail of celebrities, politics, and protesters. At times, there seemed to be more drama off stage, than on it.

Met opening nights are now red carpet events, attracting actors, celebrities, wealthy donors, and assorted publicity seekers decked out in elaborate jewels, gowns, capes, and costumes of every sort. This year, however, opening night also attracted activists from the gay community protesting Russia’s recently enacted laws aimed at homosexuals. The targets of the protest were the evening’s Russian headliners -- conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, well known for their friendships with Vladimir Putin.

In addition to staging a colorful protest outside the hall, anti-Putin activists managed to get inside the opera house. After politely waiting for Gergiev, the orchestra, and the audience to finish The Star Spangled Banner — played at the opening of every opera season — they began shouting at Gergiev and Netrebko from the balconies. Several members of the audience clapped in support, but mostly the audience booed until, minutes later, the protesters were escorted out and the performance finally began. This unexpected turn of events turned out to be a fitting metaphor for the evening’s performance.

This new-to-the-Met production of Tchaikovsky’s seminal opera was co-produced with the English National Opera, and directed by stage and film actress/director, Fiona Shaw. According to the Met’s production literature, she and her co-collaborator, Deborah Walker, are fans of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who was the inspiration for this production. Their vision was to bring a Chekhovian sense of realism and intimacy to Eugene Onegin with sepia-toned lighting, period dress from the Chekhov era, and truthful characterizations.

Indeed, the opening scene was right out of a Chekhov play, depicting a light and airy porch in the country home of an aristocratic Russian family. The gauzy curtains on the huge windows are raised and the doors opened, letting in light and revealing trees and garden. It was a dreamy vision of country life, conjuring up the romantic temperament of the opera’s young heroine, Tatiana.

Tatiana was sung by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who has opened the Met season for three years in a row. She is the ultimate opera superstar — not only gifted with a big, rich voice, but youthful, beautiful and possessed of dramatic talent as well. But her performance, and her singing, on Monday night were puzzling. Instead of wonderful, we got willful. During key passages she seemed to be conducting herself, with Gergiev and the orchestra following behind. This was especially perplexing in the famous letter scene, where she occasionally brought the forward-moving sweep and grandeur of this exciting aria (“Though it destroy my soul, I swear it, I’ll live my heart’s desire”) to a halt by slowing the tempo and singing so softly she could barely be heard. It did not help that she was asked to sing part of the aria lying on her back on the floor — an inexplicable stage direction. And in the stormy final farewell scene with Onegin, the conductor stopped the music completely while she bestowed a long, passionate kiss on Onegin, something completely alien to Pushkin’s Tatiana. In addition, the silence confused the audience about whether or not the opera had ended. Thanks to the interrupted momentum, the finale fizzled rather than sizzled.

For me, Netrebko’s performance was a disappointment because expectations were so high -- she has gotten rave reviews for her Tatiana in other productions of Eugene Onegin. Perhaps she was off her game because the director did not have enough time to work with her. Or her long time friendship with Gergiev allowed for a more idiosyncratic and experimental interpretation of the music. Or perhaps she was affected by the personal nature of the protests, which demanded that she and Gergiev be removed from the production. It is difficult to know.

Well-known Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien sang the title character of Onegin, portraying him as a retired Don Juan who toys with Tatiana, even teasingly kissing her on the lips after he rejects her profession of love. But Pushkin’s Onegin is no sexual predator. He is a haughty, dead soul, bored with life and love. His heart is so cold that the night before his duel with Lenski, he has no trouble sleeping, gets up late the next morning, and arrives late for the duel. By the third act of this production, however, Onegin has been mysteriously transformed into an emotional wreck and a drunk, groveling before Tatiana in the final scene while clutching her skirts like a child, and even writhing on the ground. It was not a believable portrayal of Pushkin’s proud and vain hero who -- sure in his power over her -- declares to Tatiana in the final scene that, “without me, living death will be your lot.”

Fortunately, the evening was not without its shining moments. Chief among them was Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who was outstanding as Lenski. The power, passion, and beauty of singing like his, brings audiences to the Met. He carried the evening, and handled every difficult passage and high note with ease. He was particularly poignant in his aria (“Oh where, oh where, have flown my days of springtime?”) before the duel, in which he surrenders to the realization that these may be his last moments on earth. Throughout the evening, his characterization of Lenski was a model of charisma, clarity, and sincerity. Other performances noteworthy for their solid characterizations and unforced singing were Elena Zaremba as Tatiana’s mother, and Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna, Tatiana’s nurse. In addition, Oksana Volkova was a bright and winning Olga, every bit believable as the coquette who charms Lenski and unwittingly engages in the flirtation that results in her lover’s death.

As the evening progressed, more and more incongruities and idiosyncrasies appeared in the production that made little sense and were downright irritating. The famous letter scene takes place on the porch, instead of Tatiana’s bedroom. Especially incongruous is the duel in Act 1, which is inexplicably fought with rifles, instead of pistols. The choreography in Act 1 uses a distinctly modern dance vocabulary, resulting in dances that look like they belong in the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, instead of a Russian opera. And Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Polonaise in Act 3 is buried behind columns at the back of the stage to make room in the foreground for miscellaneous couples walking around. And then there is the leg brace on Triquet, the French poet in Act 2, who is supposed to be a caricature of the French aesthetes who ruled the Russian court and social etiquette in Pushkin’s day. A Met staffer with knowledge of the production told me that the brace is supposed to indicate that Triquet had polio. I haven’t a clue why this distracting detail, completely at odds with the comic nature of Pushkin’s Triquet, was added.

Incidentally, one of the most confusing elements of this production was the lowering of the main black curtain after each scene, instead of each act. This confused the audience into thinking the act had ended. Indeed, a sizeable portion of the audience got up after the second scene of Act 1 and tried to leave, while the conductor stood on the podium stonily. Moreover, the lowering of the main curtain after each scene was unnecessary, because the basic set, with minor alterations, remained in place during each act.

All this added up to a few too many missteps for a Met season premiere. For me, the missteps were largely the result of the opera being directed as if it were a stage play or a film. The economy of gesture and expressive nuance stage and screen actors employ do not translate well in a large, cavernous space like the Metropolitan Opera House. Just like opera singers need big voices to project to the last seat in the house, they also need big gestures and strong characterizations that will project in these large spaces. That’s why it will be interesting to see how this production’s intimate style plays in the Live in HD broadcasts, where the camera can do close ups. I suspect it will translate to the screen rather well, and get a much kinder reception.

Finally, it is understandable that the actor-directors behind this production would be interested in the connection between playwright Chekhov and composer Tchaikovsky, who were friends. But Chekhov did not write Eugene Onegin, Pushkin did. Surely, there is an obligation to portray the characters and situations that Pushkin created, rather than borrowing the conceits of other writers. After all, Pushkin is not just another Russian writer. He is THE Russian writer, as important to Russian literature as Shakespeare is to English literature. Pushkin created new literary forms, new Russian words, and helped standardize the written Russian language. He is considered the father of modern Russian literature, and his birthplace and homes are national shrines. It is not too much to ask that the staging of his works convey some sense of his vision, and help illustrate why his story of Eugene Onegin has touched so many people — especially women -- through the ages, and inspired other great works of art.

Eugene Onegin continues at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City for seven more performances in September and October, with an alternating case. The live in HD performances can be seen in movie theaters all over the U.S., beginning October 5, 2013; click here for more information. 

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About the Author

Laura Genero served 20 years in senior government positions, including Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, and spokesman for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.