Eugene Onegin – an Opera in Three Acts by Tchaikovsky

Fathom events, April –  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s masterful Eugene Onegin, Op. 24, an opera in three acts and seven scenes, was presented live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York as part of the Live from the Met Series for a one-time only screening on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The libretto, adapted by the composer himself, closely follows Alexander Pushkin’s (1799-1837) classic poetic novel by the same name. Pushkin’s personal life was not without drama, for he was fatally wounded in a duel with his brother-in-law, a French officer serving with the Chevalier Guard Regiment (created by Catherine the Great in 1764), who was rumored to be having an intrigue amorous with Pushkin’s wife, Natalia Pushkina.

 

Eugene Onegin had its premiere in Moscow, March 29, 1879 at the Maly Theatre. The American premiere was given on March 24, 1920 at the Metropolitan Operas in New York at which time it was sung in Italian rather than the traditional Russian.

 

The current production has a distinctive Russian “feel” to it, with costumes and setting reminiscent of a Chekhov play.  In fact, Prince Gremin’s aria, “To love both young and old surrender” from Act III, Scene 1, is actually hummed by the characters Vershinin and Masha in Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, Three Sisters. 

 

The time and place of the action is a St Petersburg dacha (country estate) and surrounding countryside in the 1820s. Tchaikovsky’s story line is faithful to Pushkin’s novel. Madame Larina, a widow (uncredited in film’s info sheet), has two daughters: the shy and romantic Tatiana, sung by Anna Netrebko,  who spends her time reading novels, presumably “romantic,” and her free-spirited younger sister Olga, sung by Elena Maximova. Olga is being courted by their neighbor, a young, naive poet named Lenski, sung by Alexey Dolgov. Lens visits with his aristocratic, boorish and arrogant friend Eugene Onegin with whom Tatiana instantly falls in love.

 

In the second act, Onegin reluctantly accompanies Lenski to Tatiana’s name day celebration. Bored by the event, he distracts himself by flirting with Olga which infuriates  Lenski and prompts him to challenge Onegin to a duel in which Lenski is killed, an irony that foreshadows Pushkin’s own demise.

 

Act III takes place several years later. Upon returning to St Petersburg after traveling abroad, Onegin attends a ball at which Prince Gremin introduces his young wife.  Much to Oregon’s astonishment, he recognizes her as Tatiana and now realizes he actually does love her. He sends her an impassioned love letter, begging her to leave the Prince and run away with him. Tatiana confesses she still loves him but cannot leave her husband. Onegin is thus left desperate, and alone.

 

Curtain.

 

This strong musical production, featuring Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score and fine orchestration provided by Maestro Robin Ticciati, with much vocal virtuosity by the cast, suffered considerably due to the lifeless and bland production provided by Deborah Warner with sets by Tom Pye.  The sunroom windows and doors of the dacha, for example, were completely draped with lifeless canvas from floor to imagined ceiling (the set had no walls or ceiling to help project the voices into the house). The drearily drab canvas not only deadened the vocal projection of the singers, but also visually presented an unremittingly dull and wearisome backdrop which was not changed for all three scenes of Act I. The extraordinary singers deserved better.

 

Otherwise, this “Onegin” was a worthy effort on the part of the inimitable Met and a valuable experience for opera cinema lovers world-wide who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience a live performance from the world-renowned Met.

by Lidia Paulinska and Hugh McMahon

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