Review: Amid Protests and Gowns, Met Opens Season with Eugene Onegin

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During the usually brief pause between Monday’s opening-night "Star Spangled Banner" and the first notes of Eugene Onegin, shouts rained down from the Family Circle of the Metropolitan Opera, somewhat indistinct, with the word "Putin" surfacing often. Could anybody have been surprised?

Outside, the activist group Queer Nation, roughly 100 in number, protested Russia's anti-gay legislation in Russia that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” With Vladimir Putin supporter Valery Gergiev conducting Tchaikovsky – Russia's foremost gay composer – protesters wanted the Met, "to make a statement that explicitly condemns Russia's attack on gay people." Met general manager Peter Gelb restated the company’s position that it doesn’t take stances on social and political issues in Bloomberg News on Sunday.

During Monday's performance bits of booing and applause were heard inside the Met when the protesters were escorted out. Remember those years when Met opening nights were sleepy and inconsequential? This wasn't that.

Opening night glitz was in unusually high gear – in the audience, dresses had trains, feathers and fabric you didn't know had been invented – and the opera starring Anna Netrebko in a role she was born to sing unfolded in a new production by the adventurous Deborah Warner. The evening was a definite success, though strengths weren't where you thought they'd be. You have to expect that with Eugene Onegin.

The complex, Pushkin-based opera strives for almost Chekhovian theatrical veracity in the long character soliloquies and quiet scene endings, but is periodically hijacked by operatic choruses and melodramatic confrontations. The fitful plot spans many years, starting with young, naïve Tatiana sending worldly Onegin a mash note in Act I and ending with her, as a poised married woman, rejecting him. Onegin himself can seem so unattractively blasé, he hardly seems to deserve title-character status.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

In contrast to the picturesque abstraction of Robert Carsen's previous Met production, Warner was surprisingly representational. Interiors (designed by Tom Pye) had realistically appointed foreground and background rooms. When Onegin and his best friend Lenski have a duel in Act II, the bleak winter landscape has a certain poetry in its icy surfaces.

When first staged at the English National Opera under Warner's direction, the production was weighted toward Lenski, who provoked the duel out of an overwhelming Jekyll/Hyde neurosis. Due to Warner's health problems, the Met staging was taken over by actress Fiona Shaw (her longtime collaborator) who shifted the weight toward Onegin. His soliloquies had greater dramatic detail. In the Act III sumptuous ball, the dancers were in the background with bored, bitter Onegin in the foreground. Shaw's direction had odd lapses, though the final Onegin/Tatiana confrontation (sometimes treated as obligatory plot resolution) brought her approach into focus.

The key element was a kiss. When Onegin rejected her in Act I, he ended with an oddly contradictory smooch, played almost as a cruel tease. When Tatiana rejects them in Act III, her parting kiss was cataclysmic, to which he responded as if both were drinking in the lifetime of love they'll be missing.

Such an approach might not have come off without baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin. Though solid and versatile, he has never, in my experience, sung with anything close to the detail and depth of his Onegin. Also important, Gergiev's conducting was notable more for color than heat, with much of Act I shimmering like Swan Lake. Netrebko was initially a letdown, her voice lacking expressive specificity until the final scene, where her many subtleties showed how great her Tatiana could be. As Lenski, tenor Piotr Beczala displayed his usual resplendent tone with linguistic authority. Alexei Tanovitski seemed vocally compromised as Tatiana's husband Prince Gremin.

As for the protesters, one appreciates that the Met doesn't take a stand on human rights. But they made their point. And Tchaikovsky, though slightly delayed, was never interrupted.