Monday, October 21, 2013

A Riveting Simulcast

Through the courtesy of the wizards of technology I was privileged to see a live in HD performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin by the Metropolitan Opera. This opera, based upon a poem by Pushkin, was favored by Tsar Nicholas II. It has a special place in my heart as well. It was a magnificent performance and having a Slavic cast makes all the difference. According to The Washington Times:
While some aspersions have been cast on the English National Opera sets used for this production, we found them quite serviceable and appropriate to the snowy mood that the original stage director, Deborah Warren, was attempting to convey.

Updating the action of the opera slightly to the late 1800s, this production, along with the crisp, clean, elegant lines of Chloe Obolensky’s period costuming, replicated the stiff, wintry, formal Russian society of the time that, like the English Victorians, was capable of concealing great passion beneath a politically correct exterior.

As for the opera itself, “Eugene Onegin,” based on Alexander Pushkin’s eponymous verse novel, is regarded by many as Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera. With its 2013 cast, the Met clearly found an ensemble that’s as capable of confirming this judgment as any.

Pushkin’s tale exemplifies the age-old legend of the Wheel of Fortune that spins, in this case, in two different directions for the opera’s principal characters. Onegin (Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), Pushkin’s brooding anti-hero, is a dashingly handsome, intelligent minor member of the landed aristocracy. He is also quite the nihilist, however, regarding his fellow men and women, with rare exceptions, as not generally worthy of cultivation. He treats women in particular as objects of contempt, although he’s not beneath pursuing them whenever it suits the moment.

Onegin is introduced to the bookish but apparently dull Tatiana (Russian soprano Anna Netrebko) who immediately shakes out of intellectual torpor and falls madly in love with him. But, when she incautiously makes the first move by writing a passionate love letter to Onegin, the latter coldly spurns her. Things deteriorate further when, attempting to have some fun with his friend Lenski (Polish tenor Piotr Beczala), a sensitive aspiring poet, he callously pursues Lenski’s beloved childhood sweetheart Olga (Russian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova) —Tatiana’s sister—causing the impetuous Lenski to challenge him to a duel. Both realize—too late—their huge, needless miscalculations.

Years later, upon Onegin’s return to St. Petersburg after a lengthy tour abroad, he is astounded to learn that Tatiana is now married to his relative, the gracious older noble, Prince Gremin (Belarusian bass Alexei Tanovitsky). But when Onegin, true to form, attempts to rekindle his now-impossible connection with Tatiana, she spurns his advances, leaving him to bitterly contemplate the vicissitudes of pride and fate as the curtain falls. The principal singers featured in the Met simulcast were almost uniformly superb and were also quite distinctive in their interpretation of each role, key in an opera where a strong ensemble is mandatory for a truly successful production.

Ms. Netrebko, whom we have long admired since first seeing her many seasons ago with the Washington National Opera as a winsome, tragic Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” has grown into a distinctive soprano superstar who at this point in her career has decided to dig into major tragic opera roles while leaving the ingénues behind. And that’s an interesting situation in “Onegin.” Tatiana is introduced to use precisely as a naïve young girl. But her character rapidly transforms after being spurned by Eugene, becoming more mature and self-possessed figure by the opera’s close—a reverse image of her former self.

Ms. Netrebko makes this transition effective on two levels. On the first level, we note little change in Tatiana’s bookish, seemingly aloof physical presence between the first and final acts. But this outward projection masks the passion and turmoil within, a secret, emotional core that emerges via Ms. Netrebko’s subtle, skillful, richly expressive vocal instrument. It’s her voice, not her appearance, that bares Tatiana’s soul, creating an unforgettable character, particularly during the emotional cascades at the center of the lengthy, passionate, and taxing “love letter” aria Tchaikovsky wrote for this part.

Mariusz Kwiecien portrays Onegin as an enigmatic, almost disengaged man of the world, not incapable of passion, but still quite capable of divorcing that passion from any thought of commitment or personal involvement when it comes to romance with the opposite sex. It’s clear he’s never been truly smitten, and that emerges in his proper but cold rejection of Tatiana’s impulsive early advances.

Later, of course, Onegin is indeed love-struck for the young woman he has apparently lost. This surprise reversal of fortune signifies his collapse into the unaccustomed role of spurned lover, a stark contrast to his earlier, haughty overconfidence. It is Onegin’s and Tatiana’s parallel tragedy that neither is open to the other when the time and circumstances are right.

Kiprensky portrait of Alexander Pushkin, circa 1827.
Mr. Kwiecien conveys Onegin’s awakening passion superbly with the steady, confident, expressive baritone voice we’ve admired since seeing him in 2012 in the elegant Santa Fe Opera production of Szymanowski’s infrequently performed, ethereal masterpiece, “King Roger.” His instrument is both expressive and authoritative and his Onegin proves the perfect, ill-fated match to Ms. Netrebko’s Tatiana.

“Onegin’s” odd man out, as it were, is poor Lenski, the boyish, budding poet who begins the opera as Onegin’s best friend but ends up Onegin’s bullet in his broken heart. Madly in love with Tatiana’s sister, his childhood sweetheart Olga, the jealous Lenski is easily drawn into Onegin’s silly game but further than anyone might have expected, leading to tragic, if predictable consequences.

We have a winner in this production in the person of tenor Piotr Beczala who captures Lenski’s impetuous innocence and genuine goodness to near perfection. Clear and forceful, his voice has a surprising power that makes him more of a key presence in this production than is often the case in this opera, adding considerable tragic impact to his needless loss.

While the characters of Olga and Prince Gremin are not the focus of “Onegin’s” tragic love triangle, they are nonetheless key players who become unwittingly involved. In her interpretation of Olga, Ms. Volkova’s plummy mezzo and jolly personality is the perfect foil for both her intellectual sister Tatiana and her devoted yet immature would-be husband Lenski. One normally associates fluttery coquettishness with sopranos, but Ms. Volkova’s voice handles this character type with an earthy ease that defies expectations.

Although we don’t see him until the final act, Prince Gremin, Onegin’s older relative and Tatiana’s eventual husband, plays a crucial role. Tatiana is advised early on by the older women in the household that romantic love is not essential to a good marriage—something the younger woman cannot believe.

Yet in the finale, she has settled for just that, winning a royal title for herself in the process and comfortably maturing into the role. She’s startled to be reintroduced to the long-lost Onegin, and nearly succumbs to his entreaties. But in a surprising turn for lovers of traditional romance, she returns to Gremin, confounding Onegin’s presumptions.

All of which would have seemed unlikely if the much-older and wiser Gremin weren’t a genuinely decent, stand-up guy. That’s all left up to the singer who portrays him—in this case, bass Alexei Tanovitsky. After a few sung lines of dialogue, Gremin reveals the depth of his character and makes his case in a distinctive, extended solo. Mr. Tanovitsky’s sublime interpretation of this key dramatic moment was unexpectedly breathtaking. There can sometimes be a harshness to the bass voice as well as some difficulty in perceiving this vocal range when sung against a full, romantic era opera orchestra. Mr. Tanovitsky rose above the orchestration to declare his honor and his love in a rich, compassionate, masculine bass devoid of rough edges, making it clear to all why Tatiana would not leave a husband who, though perhaps not her first choice, was clearly worthy of her loyalty and devotion. (Read more.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, I wish I could have seen this! The book is a personal favorite of mine, and Anna is such a glorious soprano-one of the best! :D