Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Metropolitan Opera: Hampson, Mattila, Beczala

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Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga and Piotr Beczala as Lenski in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga and Piotr Beczala as Lenski in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera, January 30, 2009
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek conductor

Eugene Onegin – Thomas Hampson
Tatiana – Karita Mattila
Lensky – Piotr Beczala
Olga – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Prince Gremin – Sergei Aleksashkin
Larina – Wendy White
Filippyevna – Jane Shaulis
Triquet – Tony Stevenson
Captain – David Crawford
Zaretsky – Richard Bernstein
Dancer – Sam Meredith
Dancer – Linda Gelinas

Production – Robert Carsen
Designer – Michael Levine
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman
Choreographer – Serge Bennathan
Stage Director – Peter McClintock

Robert Carsen and Michael Levine’s Eugene Onegin is twelve years old, but one couldn’t say that it is dated, exactly. On the other hand, some aspects of it go against the grain of Tchaikovsky’s Pushkin adaptation, or at least raise a few questions. Tchaikovsky and his collaborator, using Pushkin’s words, created one of the most successful libretti in all opera. The language is a joy to hear, and, while Tchaikovsky the composer repeats many phrases for musical and expressive reasons, the libretto remains a marvel of concision, especially for the nineteenth century. It compellingly romanticizes its original for Russian opera audiences of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, who saw both love and peasants differently from Pushkin’s generation. Tchaikovsky had more sympathy for Tatiana’s pure, naive infatuation, and for him Onegin was not so much a Byronic hero as a heartless cad. On her family’s country estate Tatiana meets Onegin as barely more than a girl, falls madly in love with him, writes him an ill-considered declaration, and must listen to his honorable, but humiliating rejection. To relieve his boredom at a party Onegin enrages his friend Lensky by flirting with his fiancée, Olga, Tatiana’s sister, pushes him to the point of a duel, and kills him. This adds an element of misery to Onegin’s perpetual dissatisfaction and alienation, and he leaves Russia to travel and forget. Several years later, he returns, unchanged, and goes directly to a party hosted by his relative and friend, Prince Gremin. There he sees a splendidly dressed, confident woman, who is evidently of some importance in society, whom he recognizes as Tatiana. He learns from Gremin that she is his wife. Onegin, no more loyal a friend than he was before, immediately begins to pursue her. In the final scene, she rejects him, although she is still in love with him, and sends him away in a state of abject misery. While it is clear that Onegin suffers, we never find out whether he learns anything from this or not, as Tatiana has.

Carsen and Levine use a bare stage to make us concentrate on the story and the characters, although there is plenty of eye candy in the costumes, which are also Michael Levine’s. Within this scheme, the first act revolves around a field of autumn leaves, which first cover the stage and then are raked to the edges to form a clear circle, in which the peasants can sing and dance. For Tatiana’s letter scene, her bedroom furniture occupies an open space which give us an unconstricted view of sky, that is, the moon and the rising sun. The ball scene in the second act is fenced in by a wall of diverse chairs, again containing the guests and principles within a tight space. The third act, another ball scene, is not so contained, and leads to the final scene, which unfolds around a solitary, seated Tatiana. The producers chose to balance this during the overture with a tableau of a solitary, seated Onegin reading Tatiana’s letter, which we view through a hazy scrim.

Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson in the title role of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera.

Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson in the title role of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera.

Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Thomas Hampson as Onegin in Eugene Onegin, photo Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

That first gesture put me on my guard somewhat, since it is unnecessary and distracting: the overture is intended to set the mood for the melancholy autumn scene on the estate. People new to the production won’t get its point until the end, and I’m not sure that it’s so compelling in any case. This is typical of the faults of this handsome and interesting production, which are far from fatal. As soon as Onegin and the scrim disappear, we are brought into the story by the beautiful spare set and the detailed action of Filippeyevna and Madame Larina and, later, Olga, who lustily tucks into her tea. During all this Tatiana sits immobile with her head turned away from the audience, looking seriously depressed. The peasants crowd into the circle that has been cleared to sing and dance in merriment. There seemed to be too many of them, enough to constrict their movements and to make their dance look as artificial as it really was. This gave me an extremely uncomfortable feeling that it was in some way immoral to be watching this clichéed representation of the merry, simple serf. Olga felt free to dance and sing along and derived great enjoyment from it, but I did not. The ballroom dancing in the second act, however, was a delight. The many gowns, all different, created a wonderful spectacle in the crowded space surrounded by chairs. Action and music came together in the famous waltz to give the scene its full dramatic value, as the chorus pass around their bitchy gossip pianissimo. Towards the end of the act the producers can’t resist showing their cleverness, by leaving the Mazurka unchoreographed. As self-conscious as this manipulation was, I found it extremely effective.

Karita Mattila as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera.

Karita Mattila as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera.

I should turn back to Olga’s letter scene to comment on the silhouetting of Olga against the rising sun, a powerful symbol of the beginning of the girl’s sexual maturity. Onegin is similarly silhouetted against the sunrise at the end of the duel scene, as he kneels over Lensky’s corpse. This I found questionable, since it implies that Onegin will now undergo a transformative crisis like Tatiana’s. It is clear from his behavior in Act III that he does not. He is the same self-absorbed egotist he was before. Act II and Act III, moreover, are linked by some stage business in which Onegin is dressed by a team of flunkies, as Lensy’s body is carried off stage—all the the music of the Act III Polonaise! (A powerful, if rather contrived scene.) This would seem to undercut the implications of the sunrise device. Perhaps the visual parallelism simply looked too good to pass up, like the pointless tableau before Act I. At the conclusion, our very unpleasant Onegin responds to Tatiana’s rejection, by grabbing a hold of her—almost an attempted rape—before he lapses into despair.

In spite of these reservations I found the production thoroughly effective, absorbing, and handsome to behold. It is clear that Tchaikovsky didn’t like his hero any more than Berlioz liked Aeneas, and it is impossible to redeem him in a production. Present-day productions, notably this one and the splendid concert version last summer at Tanglewood, make Onegin even more repellent. His pawing of Tatiana was truly disgusting—eliciting bitter guffaws from the middle-aged woman next to me. But we should remember, as Onegin himself says, that he behaved perfectly correctly when he answered her letter with wise counsel at the end of the first act. A Chekhovian hero would have taken her to a hotel in the nearest town—or Italy, if he were really serious—and made a fallen woman of her.

Jirí Belohlávek’s produced an unusually rich timbre from the Met Orchestra. He eschewed the usual transparency of the strings and elicited a thicker, more romantic sound from them. This dose not mean that inner voices and details were obscured, quite the opposite. Instead of the rhythmic snap of a Davis or a Levine, he moulded Tchaikovsky’s soaring phrases into expansive, expressive shapes with plenty of space between them. Most interestingly, he avoided treating the dance numbers as set pieces, and concentrated on their dramatic function—an approach emphasized in the staging. This proved a true revelation in the second act waltz, when the viciousness of the whispered gossip dominated the mood. His tendency to whip up an exciting tempo in these numbers and at other opportunities recalled Gergiev, but overall his approach was more elegiac, but virile—an original and important statement on Tchaikovsky’s score—his greatest work, in the opinion of many.

Wendy White as Madame Larina and Jane Shaulis, replacing an ailing Barbara Dever as Filippeyevna the nurse, opened Act I with nicely characterized and elegant singing. Later Tony Stevenson was a bright and elegant Triquet, who resisted the temptation to make a caricature of the obliging French poet. Sergei Aleksashkin’s mature gravity and deliberate tempo, enthusiastically supported by Maestro Belohlávek, it seemed, gave his aria special prominence in Act III. Ekaterina Semenchuk, who sang Olga at Tanglewood, inspired by the stage, and Peter McClintock’s direction, gave an even more vividly sung and acted portrayal.  Hers was a lively and touchingly comic Olga, given to throwing herself into the moment through dancing, teasing, or overeating.

One can’t say that the magnificent Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, comes exactly as a surprise, since he sang at the Met already in 2006, but this is his first full season and the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing him. In Lensky, he avoided the cliché of making his character an absurd loser. His Lensky was handsome, energetic, and present. His fiery temperament is attractive, exciting, and doom-laden all at once. His interaction with Onegin in the second act is all the more compelling because we feel Lensky’s impulsiveness and sense that if he could only calm down, things would turn out differently. (Self-aware and regretful, Onegin experiences one of his better moments here.) Beyond that, Lensky could not have been sung more beautifully. Beczala’s virile lower and middle registers, his brilliant top, and his intelligent phrasing are extraordinary. To mention just one telling example, his singing of the pregnant Mozartian phrase ” V vashem domie” and the ensuing aria was a masterpiece of singing and acting. The Met has a new star in Piotr Beczala.

Thomas Hampson used his impressive stature and movie-star looks to create an inherently menacing Onegin, who is softened by impeccable manners. Then we can understand why Tatiana falls for him. His large, dark voice has many subtle colors and a bright but burnished top. It is a delight to hear from beginning to end, but Hampson never lets it get in the way of his partly world-weary, partly sinister characterization—a world away from Hvorostovky’s mischievous Onegin of 2007. When he is not singing, his distant, often immobile figure looms on stage. At the fateful ball in which he and Lensky quarrel, he is both bored and drunk, and surly as well. The elegance of his singing helps support his hollow, exceptionally repellent Onegin as he swings from civilized, sententious egotism to desperate, futile violence. Hampson’s was a large-scale Onegin, almost superhuman, and an unforgettable one.

It is possibly inevitable that Tatiana, no matter who sings the part, will demand a certain suspension of judgement, as all opera, I suppose. This infatuated girl, who suffers humiliation at the threshold of womanhood, immediately arouses our sympathies, but, in spite of her youth, she is not a simple character. Her luscious melodies require the nuance and shading of a mature singer, especially in her extensive “letter scene.” Last summer Renée Fleming gave Tanglewood audiences an unforgettable experience in her richly imagined and felt, mature enactment of a young girl’s romantic fantasies. As we listened, we were equally aware of the innocent state of mind Ms. Fleming projected as of the artistic and psychological maturity necessary in creating it. Karita Mattila, who triumphed earlier this season in her portrayal of Salome, a rather different sort of adolescent, never approached Renée Fleming’s or her own Straussian poetic imagining, but she sang splendidly throughout. In her very first scenes the quality and complex timbre of her large, brilliant soprano voice was clear enough. He interpetation of the role, however, was oddly heavy. Her movements, or rather her immobility, at her first appearance suggested deep depression rather than dreaminess. She approached the letter scene dramatically, rather than as a completely unified creation. Tatiana’s emotions remained at a histrionic level without fully engulfing us. Mattila, however, arrived at her own great moment in the final scene. Her quiet dignity and self-containment, as Onegin insisted and pawed at her, as well as the consummate artistry of her production and phrasing (not to mention Hampson’s own eloquence and Belohlávek’s flawless pacing) made a great operatic moment of this final scene.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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