Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Live from the Met: Eugene Onegin with Netrebko and Mattei

Credit: Metropolitan Opera

I rarely see opera cinema broadcasts because the purist in me believes nothing quite emulates the live experience and I end up stewing with irrational jealousy that I am not present in person. But there are certain operas and singers that encourage me to discard such snobbisms. The combination of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, one of my favourite operas and Anna Netrebko’s Tatiana inspired such a cinematic trip.

First of all we must mention an absence sorely felt onstage; Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was to perform the role of Onegin, has temporarily retreated yet again from the stage as he continues his battle with illness. Onegin is a role fortuitously interwoven with his starry career; his showing opposite Renee Fleming is widely considered one of the definitive interpretations of the difficult role and it was again as the diffident Eugene that he graced the Covent Garden stage for his first London appearance post-diagnosis. Such is his deep mastery of the character and unique velvet-coated-iron voice that mere mention of him coaxed a scattered applause from the cinema audience. Dima, get well soon and return once more to the frost-ridden dawn!

The opera may be named after the St Petersburg cad but make no mistake, such is Tchaikovsky’s adoration of the pensive Tatiana that it is difficult to stage any production which provides more than a cursory understanding of the titular Byronic character (curiously, the preceding minimalist Met Opera production achieved this remarkably well). Tchaikovsky declared himself madly in love with Tatiana during the opera’s creation, and it is upon her (and the idealist Lensky) that he bestows his most lyrical arias. This is the template of both score and libretto – and with Anna Netrebko, perhaps the single most charismatic soprano alive, as the older Larina daughter, Tatiana is inevitably the opera’s pulsating core.

And how marvellous she is! Suspend the disbelief that, under the unforgiving glare of HD cinema, our Tatiana is a few springs over seventeen. Forget the annoyance that she writes her doomed lovesick missive in a conservatory, a clunky and unimaginative space. Luxuriate instead in her intense charisma, the changeling dark eyes, the dark timbre hinting at otherworldly wonder when she soars to the episodic refrains the letter scene aria. Her Tatiana is less knowing than some others. Unusually, against the flow of modern interpretation, Tatiana’s Act One appearance is not tainted by pensive melancholy. Rather, this Tatiana looks to tomorrow with optimism and is congenial, if a little shy. Under this filter, we too experience the confused flush of this early Tatiana – the sudden rush of impulse of adolescent adoration, the gawkish shyness and agonising over social failings. Netrebko also succeeds in drawing to the forefront musical interchanges that can be lost; I have never found Tatiana’s exchanges with her nurse (Diadkova) that bookend the letter scene particularly illuminating, but she draws out the adolescence of the girl’s curiosity and the dearth of romantic fulfilment that surrounds her.

Special mention must be made of the letter scene, a self-contained ten-minute exploration of adolescent yearning. It is symbolic of the entire opera; seemingly placid and uncomplicated (if strong) emotions on the surface which are contained by a crust of reserve under which churns a torrent of bated afflictions. Netrebko, alone and exposed, is bigger than both stage and life. She recognises that the power of the aria lies in its arc, both vocal and theatrical, and captures both ecstasy and pain in the same descending scale (“Вообразия здесь однаНикто меня не понимает” / Remember, I am here all alone! Nobody understands me”). Netrebko was not perfect (still retaining that life-long intonation problem including a tendency to be sharp) but she was magnificent.

Our second replacement Onegin was Peter Mattei (taking over from Mariusz Kwiecien, who sang the opening nights of this run). Theatrically, he is pure and his grave deportment successfully drew clean characterisations opposite Dolgov’s fidgety Lensky. If this Onegin appears of little incidence opposite a powerful Tatiana, it is hardly his fault, such is Netrebko’s vocal fortitude. But he was hampered in other regards; his tone, though pleasingly stately, has introvert tendencies. This worked handsomely for his Act One closing aria of paternalistic condescension, but left the final duet rather flat and lacking power. And, in a completely personal gripe, he committed that cardinal tenor sin of falling dramatic to his knees and pounding the earth under the apparent romantic agony.

The rest of the Russian cast was largely well-balanced. As Lensky, Alexei Dolgov was invigorated, if not entirely lyrical and slightly reedy, presenting an affectingly pathetic and earnest character. Elena Maximova’s flighty Olga made the most of a limited role. Our Gremin, one of the great bass operatic roles, was curiously baby-faced and lacked the grizzled gravitas of the soldier that ought to draw effective comparison to the dark Onegin.

This is the second outing for the Met’s new production, and it does not seem to improve upon revival. The pageantry interrupting the peasant chorus sits ill with the mournful weariness of the folk song, the dancers cluttering an already fussy space. The sets, the work of Tom Pye, are disconnected, with the near-abstraction of the final Act meshing oddly with the homely reality that preceded it. In the final scene, with repressed emotions laid bare across the bleak Russian landscape, it is in the unmatched realism of Netrebko’s Tatiana that we take wing, with or without Onegin.

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