The Saturday evening before last, we heard Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera. The conductor was Valery Gergiev.
Gergiev is now sixty years old. He has been conducting “Eugene Onegin”—all over the world—for almost four decades, and I question whether he still responds to the score. There was no affection in his reading, no sense of a propriety interest in the music. He offered a tired account of “Eugene Onegin”; the conducting lacked energy, concentration, focus—and polish.
Gergiev did not even rise to the big moments. Tatiana’s letter scene is as much a showcase for conductor as for soprano, yet Gergiev’s handling of the letter scene fell flat. The frenzied activity at the end of Act II, Scene I, lacked adrenaline (Georg Solti blew the roof off in this scene). There was no drama from the pit even during Tatiana’s and Onegin’s final parting in Act III.
“Eugene Onegin” is, above all, a conversational opera. The big moments are glorious and must make their effects, yet a performance cannot work unless the conductor understands how to shape the intimate conversations that constitute the heart of the drama. Musical tension must be sustained, yet the conversations must come across as natural and unaffected; the orchestra must offer ear-beguiling sounds, yet at the same time the conductor must acutely and dispassionately provide structure and continuous momentum. Gergiev met none of the requirements.
The big moments aside, Gergiev’s tempi were slow. The immediate effect was to lend a heavy quality to everything, including the rustic Act I, Scene I, which should be anything but heavy. Gergiev speeded up for the big moments, as if someone had slipped him an injection, but afterward he quickly returned to turgidly-slow tempi. Gergiev single-handedly killed the performance, what with the ponderousness he administered.
Gergiev is very free with tempi in music of Tchaikovsky. A too-free approach to tempi in Tchaikovsky drains the music of discipline and reserve—and discipline and reserve are key components of everything Tchaikovsky wrote, despite the composer allowing an occasional release of hysteria.
Gergiev takes a minute-by-minute approach to conducting; he is always in search of the next highlight. Anyone who has heard Gergiev’s near-laughable Tchaikovsky recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic (a great and noble Tchaikovsky orchestra) is already familiar with how Gergiev shamelessly stretches and pulls about Tchaikovsky’s music, to vulgar and brutal effect.
Gergiev was the fourth conductor I have heard lead “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera. The previous three conductors, in order, had been James Levine, Vladimir Jurowski and Jiří Bělohlávek. Of that group, only Jurowski had been a capable—although far from perfect—conductor of the score.
The Met needs to engage Gennadi Rozhdestvensky or Yuri Temirkanov or Daniele Gatti for future revivals of “Eugene Onegin”. All are exceptional Tchaikovsky conductors.
Anna Netrebko sang Tatiana. Netrebko’s voice is enormous; it has richness and color in abundance. It was a pleasure merely to sit back and listen to wave after wave of glorious sound. Otherwise, Netrebko’s Tatiana was oddly unaffecting—Netrebko did absolutely nothing with the part—and she appeared to have received no guidance from the stage director. (Netrebko was poorly costumed, which did not help matters.)
Onegin was Mariusz Kwiecien. Kwiecien’s voice is much smaller—and much drier—than Netrebko’s, which made it difficult for him to compete against his heroine. Kwiecien’s physical portrayal of Onegin, however, was very fine—and on occasion moving (Kwiecien presents a very likeable figure onstage). Kwiecien was the only singer among the principals with acting skills—and the only one with significant stage presence.
Piotr Beczala sang Lensky. Beczala had appeared as Lensky the last time I attended “Eugene Onegin” at the Met, and I found Beczala no more remarkable this go-around than last go-around. My ears do not find Beczala’s voice or artistry unique; he is a capable singer, nothing more. (Beczala, a wooden actor, is now too old for Lensky; Beczala looked like Kwiecien’s father, not Kwiecien’s peer—and Kwiecien himself is no spring chicken.)
I very much liked three members of the supporting cast, all complete artists: Oksana Volkova (Olga); Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina); and Larissa Diadkova (the nurse).
Everyone else onstage possessed talents more suited to Minnesota Opera than the Metropolitan Opera.
The physical production had premiered in 2011 at English National Opera, although Act I—at the Met’s insistence—had been significantly revised for the New York presentation.
The production was too small in scale for the Met; it probably would have been more successful in a smaller theater. (My father’s pithy dismissal: “This production might have been a big hit in Madison.”)
The action was advanced to the late 19th Century for no ostensible reason. The stage design and costume design were more British than Russian (many of the costumes looked like leftovers from an old “Peter Grimes” production).
All of Act I—including the letter scene—was played in what appeared to be a conservatory converted into a fruit market. Act III, Scene II, was played out-of-doors, in a snowstorm.
The direction was provincial, and included odd, gratuitous bits of staging, such as kisses exchanged between Tatiana and Onegin in Acts I and III. The peasant choruses and dances in Act I were turned into Russian Orthodox ceremonials, complete with religious icons. Tatiana, in Act III, was dressed like Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.
Such a witless production should be sent back across the water promptly and not allowed to return to these shores.
The performance was sold out; all tickets were taken weeks before performance night.
We had obtained our tickets back in August. Had we delayed, we very well might have been left out.
The audience response to the performance was restrained, especially so given that Gergiev, Netrebko, Kwiecien and Beczala are all big names.