This was my first time seeing this production of the opera, which opened about two seasons ago. Although I had seen the male singers in several operas, the females, with the exception of Jane Shaulis, were all unknown to me. Despite the rumors of terrorist activity on the subway all weekend and the detours I had to take because of changes in service, I found this performance to be one of those events you remember for the rest of your opera going life. Everything fell into place beautifully. Everyone was in pretty good voice, with the exception of Irina Bogatcheva, whose contralto voice often came across as flat. But her acting was perfect, as was that of every member of the cast.
* * * THE PRODUCTION * * *
Before going on with the performance, I’d like to say a few words about the production, which was the subject of intense discussions on several opera boards when it was unveiled. Some of you may remember that the production featured a single set consisting of one wall on either side, spaces to enter and exit both up- and downstage, and a single back wall. Lighting was responsible for the coloring. Nearly each scene features a character in pantomime behind a scrim during its prelude. Prior to the first scene of Act One, we see Onegin on a chair center stage, reading (an invitation? a book?). Suddenly, dead leaves start to fall from the flies. He closes whatever he is reading, arises with a concerned? curious? surprised? look on his face, and the stage goes black. When the lights come up again, we are in Madame Larina’s garden, the ground covered by a thick layer of fallen leaves. At a few times during this scene, the leaves are kicked and played with by one or more of the characters.
Scene Two, Tatiana’s room, appears to be a square or rectangle cleared of leaves downstage center. It features what a young girl’s bedroom would normally feature. Before the scrim is pulled up, we see a very agitated Tatiana. Filippevnya enters and departs via a large trap door in the corner. This is apparently a room high up in the house.
Set in another part of the garden, Scene Three is also covered with leaves. I guess fallen leaves were rarely rakes in nineteenth century Russian country houses. At least, that seems to be what the production team would like us to believe.
Each of the succeeding acts consists of two scenes. Again, Onegin, looking rather perturbed or uncomfortable, appears alone at the beginning of Act II. The stage is an enclosed square of chairs often punctuated by a table for drinks and/or snacks. It is the main room in Madame Larina’s house, a party in honor of Tatiana’s name day. The square rapidly fills up with dancing couples and children, making it nearly impossible to move freely. (It calls to mind a crowded New York nightclub peopled by 19th Century Russian gentility and landowners.) To avoid forcing people to wait on line in order to leave the dance floor, corner chairs have to be removed by servants. Scene Two, the duel, opens on Lenski waiting. Onegin is late. The stage is absolutely bare. Lenski stands upstage center with Onegin downstage center. Once Lenski has been shot and his body removed, we are treated to an orchestral interlude (the prelude to Act III?) during which Onegin’s clothes are changed by servants.
This brings us directly into the Third Act which, according to the text, occurs several years later at home of Onegin’s cousin, Prince Gremin. Onegin has arrived in Moscow that very day, after spending those years in travel. More elegant chairs, with upholstered backs and bottoms, are placed around the walls, which are now a light blue or lavender. The final scene of the opera takes place the following day in Tatiana’s room. She is discovered agitatedly reading a letter from Onegin. The scrim rises as Onegin runs in. She gives him “what for” and walks out, leaving him the chair she had occupied.
* * * THE PERFORMANCE * * *
Although I do have a few reservations, which you will read later on, I do not know if my vocabulary contains enough expressions of praise, satisfaction and admiration to fully express how I felt when the opera was over -- and still feel about that performance, by the way.
I first heard Tatiana’s ‘Letter Scene’ in Italian on an aria album by Renata Tebaldi at the beginning of my collecting activity, nearly 50 years ago. Tebaldi did a beautiful job, especially with her stentorian voice to express the character’s devotion and fear of Onegin. Lucine Amara was the Tatiana in my first Met experience of this opera -— probably about 45 years ago -— and performs it on an album of excerpts published by the Met. I do not know if it is available on CD, but it is worth having, with Richard Tucker as Lenski and Frank Guarrera as Onegin. Furthermore, during that period, it was sung in English at the Met. Not since the performances of these two artists have I encountered a Tatiana who moved me as much as Solveig Kringelborn. She does not have a large voice, but it is focused and cuts through both orchestra and chorus with an appreciated intensity. She portrays an adolescent young woman who is full of the emotions she has picked up from all the love novels she has read. During the letter scene, the director has her stepping outside the limits of her bedroom and running through the leaves, playing with them, and rolling in them. Perhaps this is an expression of where her mind is at the moment. No matter. It works, at least for me.
The rich, mellifluous contralto voice of Katarina Karnéus was, perhaps, the most attractive and noteworthy of the remaining female voices in this production.
But the men: ah, the men! If only for the fact that he sang in Russian, Marcello Giordani proved himself unique among Italian tenors. A beautiful lyric tenor, ideal for the Bel Canto and French repertoire, let us hope he does not overuse his voice in repertoire too heavy for him, an error made by many young singers today. Elsewhere in this website, I heap kudos and endless praise on both his singing and acting the role of Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Also, his Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon a few years ago at the Met was both virile and sensitive, as well as beautifully sung.
As Gremin, Robert Lloyd’s rich bass-baritone voice provided a sympathetic portrait of a love-smitten older man.
Now for the title character: Thomas Hampson’s voice is perfectly appropriate for the role of Onegin. His singing is note-perfect and elegant, and his acting and interpretation highly impassioned and intense, when necessary. That said, I wonder why in the world I have a problem believing him? This has occurred with his Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, his Rodrigo in Don Carlo, and his Figaro in Barbiere. I did not even attempt to deal with his Billy Budd or Werther. I even had trouble with his Winterreise (Schubert) at a Carnegie Hall recital a few years ago. When I watch and listen to him perform, my mind tells me that he is doing all the right things—and very well. But he does not seem to reach my heart and soul. I do not understand this because I want very much to like this very bright and talented artist.
In any case, I had a wonderful time and loved the evening, even Hampson.
-- Howard in Griswold Hall
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