Mario Hamlet-Metz

Metropolitan Opera House: Welcome back, Valery and Jimmy

Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien as the title character of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."
Photo Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

In his Eugene Oneguin, Pushkin seemed to announce from afar the theories advanced later on by the writers belonging to the Realistic movement, who were denouncing the excesses of romanticism. Balzac used to say that the monotony and the boredom that characterized provincial life often caused passions that inevitably must end sadly, as he illustrated in his Eugénie Grandet. Flaubert warned his contemporaries of the dangers of those readings that inflamed the imagination of vulnerable feminine minds with an over-sensitive personality, giving a magnificent example of it in his masterpiece Madame Bovary. By nature, Tatiana belongs in this group of vulnerable minds and souls. In the text of Oneguin we learn repeatedly, from the very beginning, the notion that habit replaces true happiness. It is said to us by both Madame Larin and Filippyevna, who, in their own personal experience, had lost all illusions of pure love very early on and had found peace by submitting themselves to the routine of every day life. In the end, this would also be the fate of Tatiana, albeit in a different social status and physical surroundings, who would accept her loveless life through a process of maturation given her by an agonizing experience, which becomes the central theme in the opera. Text and music meticulously describe the strong contrasts that exist in all characters and in all the atmospheres where these characters move and that give the drama a true meaning, especially concerning the maturation of Tatiana, who really is the only character who evolves considerably throughout the piece: the simplicity of country life of the first scene versus the opulence of life at Court in Saint Petersburg; the extrovert and frivolous character of Olga versus the introspective sister; the romanticism of Lensky versus the cynic Oneguin; the superficiality of the artful tribute to Tatiana by Triquet versus the sincere and profoundly felt love of Prince Gremlin for his wife. In all these descriptions, the contribution of maestro Valery Gergiev was nothing but extraordinary. The “folklorism” that dominates the opening scene; the quartet of feminine voices followed by the orchestral “coup” announcing the arrival of Oneguin that was very much in accordance with the “coup” felt in Tatiana’s heart at the first sight of her only love; the treatment of the psychosomatic illness of the heroin; the boredom, dandyism, cruelty and sarcasm of Oneguin at the beginning and his desperate realization at the very end of the futility of his life, empty of significance and without a future; the contrast of the seemingly rambunctious ball at the Larin’s house on the occasion of the celebration of Tatiana’s name day and the more elegant, stylized ball at the capital, were all rendered with such sensitivity and idiomatic authority that the orchestra seemed to be producing, for his baton, music that sounded authentically Russian. Of course, his work was somewhat easier given the fact that for most singers the Russian language had no secrets. Let’s add the musical Gergiev’s Oneguin to what, in my view, have been the most memorable directions by a foreign conductor in the last few decades: Kleiber’s Der Rosenkavalier and Muti’s Attila.
From her auspicious debut as Natasha in War and Peace (2002) to the present Tatiana, we have followed with extreme interest and increasing admiration the career of Anna Netrebko. Her winning personality, her latent sensuality, the naturalness and spontaneity of her singing have always characterized her performances. What has become clear in the last few years though is the seriousness, intelligence and professionalism with which she takes up new challenges and changes of repertory while her voice is becoming fuller and richer in the middle register. In point of fact, through her astonishing interpretation of Tatiana she revealed herself to the spectators and to the world as a lyric soprano in full and splendid vocal form and at the same time, as an artist who has arrived at maturity at the peek of her career. Let us mention only a few of the many gems in her admirable performance: her initial shyness and the impact at the sight of Oneguin; the oscillations of intensity that passed so naturally from tremors and murmurs to explosions during the cathartic letter scene, the perfect expression of silent suffering while listening to Triquet’s her praises (what an irony!!), the control of her emotions and her dignified, regal exit after she and her supplicant lover kiss for the first and last time. Not in vain, both Triquet and Oneguin call her “tsarina”!  

Piotr Beczala as Lenski and Oksana Volkova as Olga in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."
Photo Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Mariuzs Kwiecen was a perfectly fine Oneguin. In the first two acts, his character did not seem totally convinced of his arrogance and born ability to cause pain through sarcasm. Then, during the duel scene and throughout the last act, Kwiecen gave it all and succeeded in injecting a bit of humanity into his complex character. Some of us in the audience were missing Horovstovsky, who made such a lasting impression when he sang the part here a few years ago.
For some time now, I have been saying the tenor Piotr Beczala seems to be following the steps of the great Nicolai Gedda (not a bad compliment!), an impression that was reaffirmed with his elegant rendition of the poetic character of Lensky. Like Gedda, the Polish tenor is much better in communicating text and music in the non-Italian repertory. His melancholy, his sincere passion for the immature Olga and his understandable irritation at the behavior of his fiancée as well as of his irresponsible friend did not leave anything to be desired and his “Gouda, Gouda” was sung with sincere feeling.
Osama Moldova integrated herself perfectly in this trio. Her robust mezzo-soprano offered just the right contrast in sound with her sister’s lyric soprano.  Elena Zaremba (Madame Larin) and Larissa Diadkova  (Filippvyevna) also made their contribution to the success of an evening in which the only singer was not at the same level of the rest was the bass Alexei Tanovitski, whose timbre was not particularly pleasant and whose singing was not particularly noble. The cast was completed by John Graham-Hall, the efficient, if not very attractive, Triquet, David Crawford (Captain) and Richard Bernstein (Zaretski).
The new production (in collaboration with the ENO), which served also as season opener, was rather simple and did not make us forget the preceding one, richer in colors and furnishings, and also, in my view, better in the delineation of Oneguin’s character. Tom Pye (sets), Deborah Warner (original producer, replaced by Fiona Shaw due to illness), Jean Kahlman (lighting), Ian William Galloway/Finn Ross (video design) and Kim Brandstrup (choreography) used big open spaces that were good for the ball scenes in both the interior of the Larin residence and at Court but that took away some of the wanted intimacy of other scenes, especially the nocturnal one of the letter, that took place in the same sunroom/veranda where during the day there was much household movement. A simple table was put on stage and Tatiana spent much of the time on the floor, including at the end, when she falls down, exhausted. In the staging, one could detect a touch of femininity which was fine for the four ladies but which also seemed to dulcify pointlessly the attitude of both Oneguin and Lensky. The beautiful costumes, particularly those of Miss Netrebko were designed by Chloe Obolensky.

If the ovation that followed the performance of Oneguin seemed endless, the one that greeted James Levine for his return to the podium after a two-year absence was equally vociferous and enthusiastic. For his comeback, Levine chose a score that he has always loved and with which he has a particular affinity, that is, Mozart’s Così fan tutte. From the first to the last note, Levine proved to us, once again, that in this theater conducting this music, he is unrivaled. The variety of rhythms, of keys, of colors, of motives that follow, alternate, intertwine, run after each other, vivaciously, sentimentally, ironically, nostalgically, surprisingly, and even madly during the mischievous situations that the Mozart/Da Ponte duet thrived in were rendered impeccably by the maestro, who did also inject into the music a touch a much-needed Mediterranean light.
Levine counted with a commendable group of young singers with voices that blended well with each other, who were musically strong and theatrically full of energy and a good sense of humor. Susanna Phillips had made her company debut in 2008, as Musetta. She had subsequently sung Donna Anna and Pamina with positive results but without generating too much enthusiasm. Her top-notch Fiordiligi has completely changed her situation, which indicate to us that she has is climbed several steps on the difficult ascension to operatic stardom. The voice is agile, well placed and produced, with a sound middle register and bright, shining high notes. More scrupulous than her sister, it takes Fiordiligi a bit longer to fall into the “temptation” of betraying her “departed” lover and reflects (or feigns to reflect) which musically translates into very demanding vocalism, of varying dynamics and intentions, all of which Miss Phillips faced and resolved resolutely and with much conviction.

Isabel Leonard as Dorabella, Danielle de Niese as Despina, and Susanna Phillips as Fiordiligi
in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."
Photo Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Isabelle Leonard, another perfectionist, proved once again to possess a strong and expressive mezzo-soprano. Her Dorabella was a model of musicality and intonation.  And what to say about the Despina of Danielle de Niese, other than stating the fact that she was delicious, piquant, brilliant and precise in her lines and gifted with such an attractive personality that, often times, she was at the very center of the audience’s attention.
The men were equally impressive. Matthew Polenzani, whom I have often criticized in Italian opera for his lack of passion, found him at his vocal best as Ferrando. His lyric tenor soared, grew, softened and was able to alternate full-bodied, mezza voce and pianissimo sounds without any effort. The baritone Rodion Pogossov regaled us with a sympathetic and musically secure Guglielmo. He and Despina seemed to have most fun on stage and contributed much to the lightness and swift action. Maurizio Muraro completed the sextet of protagonists singing most correctly while having fun organizing the whole “imbroglio”.

The beautiful, elegant production dates from 1996. Michael Yeargan’s sets have kept their luminosity and mediterraneity with breezy open interiors and attractive exteriors, with loggia and gazebo overlooking the blue waters of the Golf of Naples. Here, a sailing boat awaited the (fake) departure of the two heroes. Robin Guarino was in charge of staging the original production by Lesley Koenig. Miss Guarino had the great merit of not forgetting that in Così fan tutte the stage director must remain exclusively on the level of comedy and never stray away from it. So many times these “jeux” of love and hazard, so popular during the morally corrupt 18th Century, where one of the lovers disguises himself in order to investigate the truthfulness of the feelings of the other, are treated with an excess of seriousness that does not correspond to the nature of the theater/musical piece. Fiordiligi’s and Dorabella’s “grief” must indeed be taken with a grain of salt, as Mozart and Da Ponte clearly indicate in their unique score. (This type of comedy of characters does not get serious or tragic until the 19th Century.) More than an occasional smile, Miss Guarino made us laugh, often and loud at the frankly comic interaction of the protagonists.