The Met opened their season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s *Eugene Onegin*, as a showcase for their number one star, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. She was extraordinary - - you expect vocal glamour from her, but I heard more variety in her singing, more word-painting. I think this is because it’s the first time I’ve heard her in a Russian role, I’ve only heard her in Italian opera. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien played Onegin - - I’ve seen him a couple times before, as Lucia’s brother in *Lucia di Lamermoor* and as the matador in *Carmen*, and have always found him to be a perfectly adequate performer. The incomparable Peter Mattei is playing Onegin later this year, but Marina Poplavskaya is playing Tatyana, and I’m not sure I’d describe her as adequate! So I went for Anna and Mariusz, and am so glad I did. He really delivered the goods, sang beautifully, acted up a storm, totally held the stage. The tenor was Piotr Beczala, who Richard and I had seen in this same role in the Met’s previous production. He was fantastic, such a gorgeous voice.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is the production. I was excited to hear that Deborah Warner was making her Met debut directing it - - I’ve seen her *Medea*, *Happy Days*, and *The Testament of Mary*, all starring Fiona Shaw. The production originated at English National Opera in London, and the Met co-produced it. Well, Warner had an “unexpected surgical procedure” in August (I’m quoting theatermania.com), so they hired Shaw to be the staging director. Warner is still the director of record, since she originated the production, but Shaw was the person on site moving people around and making decisions.
But the staging wasn’t really the problem, it was the set. The first act set, in particular. The first scene takes place at Tatyana’s family’s country estate. The curtain went up on a charmingly drab room, looked like the back patio in a big rural house. It seemed perfect for the first scene, where you’re meeting the characters for the first time, and where Tatyana first meets Onegin. Then the curtain went up on the second scene, the centerpiece of the opera, Tatyana’s letter scene, in which she confesses her love for Onegin in a letter - - and it was the same damn room! It had no intimacy, and it was a big dull space for one woman to fill. The third scene in the act, in which Onegin turns her down, was naturally in the same room. You just get tired of looking at that charmingly drab room after a while. Richard said, “It was like the back patio at Grossinger’s”! That Catskills reference had to be explained to me. The set made me think of that expression about a woman being so gorgeous she’d look good in a burlap sack - - in this case both Netrebko and the opera itself are gorgeous, and they still held their own in the burlap sack, but think of how much more oomph they’d have in something that was beautiful. The Met’s previous production, by Robert Carsen, was full of magic, it was creative and it drew you into the story. This production puts the opera on the stage and doesn’t get in the way, but it doesn’t illuminate it at all, and it has no magic.
Things got better in the second act (the sets were very handsome and serviceable), and Warner/Shaw did an expert job of moving the chorus around. The third act was just fine, but the opera ended with a head-scratchingly dumb moment. It takes place several years after the first two acts. Onegin has been wandering around, trying to shake the memory of having killed the tenor in a duel. He goes to a party in St. Petersburg being hosted by Prince Gremin, a distant cousin. He and his wife walk in, and the Princess Gremina is none other than Tatyana! She’s not an awkward teenager in a muslin dress, now she’s a sophisticated high society broad in full flower (a red velvet gown, to be precise). He falls head over heels for her. The final scene of the opera is for just the two of them - - he confesses his love, begs her to run away with him, she turns him down. In the score, she says, “And now farewell!” and runs offstage. There’s a moment of silence, then Onegin says his last line, something along the lines of “Boy, am I screwed.” Warner/Shaw stretched the silence out to maybe a full minute, which was a little off-putting. What they did in that pause was the problem: they had Tatyana pull Onegin towards her, give him a big passionate kiss, and then push him away and walk off. It just didn’t make sense, and cheapened the whole opera.