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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 03:00 PM

Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role of 'Eugene Onegin' Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role of 'Eugene Onegin' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

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.



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Comments [29]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Art is and should stay NON POLITICAL. If Wagner can be performed in Israel Onegin should proceed unmolested in New York, by those with leftest agendas. Even though I support Mr. Gelb in virtually nothing he as done during his tenure, I support him 100% in his stand against making a great opera into a political statement.
I was there in New York for the opening night and aside from a few fools in Family Circle seats nothing really happened, and thank God the show went on.

Sep. 28 2013 03:26 PM
Voiceanddiction from Valley Stream

For insight to Netrebko's interpretation of, and attitude toward, the role of Tatyana, cf her interview in Opera News, wherein she stated that the only thing she has in common with Tatyana is the language. She also claimed she had no sympathy for Tatyana's martyrdom in the final scene, because she herself would simply "f--- him"! Maybe hence the final hot kiss?

Sep. 28 2013 11:43 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Buried in the Patriot Act, or a separate clause, is a bit of mischief whereby Freedom of Assembly can be targeted by our government. This can be used by labor union demonstations, etc. I forgot what this act was called. Would greatly appreciate it if someone out there remembers what this act was called. It's not just Russia folks.

Sep. 28 2013 11:07 AM
wozeck from UWS

I suppose Mr. Gelb would allow Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to take the stage without a word as she supported the Nazis?

We had tickets for Eugene Onegin bought before we "knew," but this will be the last time we will buy any tickets for performances of Netrebko and Gergiev. The performances were sloppy (except for the non-Russian Piotr Beczala), the production amateurish, and the “Netrebko” audience boorish.

It is not merely that Netrebko and Gergiev are Russian, they are ACTIVE Putin supporters. It is not enough to say, ”I have never discriminated against anyone.” Silence is complicity. These artists should have made clear their opposition not only to Putin’s “gay” policy but his destructive role in the world at large and the corrupt mess he has made of their own country.

Does Mr. Gelb think that the voice of the greatest opera company in the world, which could affect the international careers of these Russians, would not, along with other international voices, have an impact. It is false logic to talk about other injustices.

This particular issue is relevant to the Met just now. Russians are leading the cast in a Russian opera. How many tickets does Mr. Gelb think he sells to homosexuals each year, how many design his productions, and, oh yes, write the music the opera house performs.

Thank God, Netrebko had that gay man’s music to hide her poor technique and vocal tricks. Oh, but the Russians won’t even admit Tchaikovsky was gay.

Sep. 28 2013 09:48 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Just adding to this debate about abuses of government. We now have in this country warrantless searches and seizures, complete disregard for our Fourth Amendment rights, stop and frisk based mainly on color, etc. Folks,
we also have militarization of local police in violation of the Posse Commitatus(?), etc.64 drone bases. The media is doing very little to cover this. We are in trouble. I am old and glad I will not be here for this wonderful world of the future.

Sep. 27 2013 07:16 AM
Robert St.Onge

This demonstration inside the Met on opening night reminds me of an incident during a David Oistrakh concert at the Met Museum while I worked as a night watchman who, during breaks, could hear concerts. During the opening movement of Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata, a young man seated toward the front suddenly ran out. Soon after a disgusting smell eminated from his seat-he had set off a stink bomb in protest to some Soviet Union matter. Everyone was told to leave the auditorium while it was aired out. Much later the concert resumed. The difference with the protest at the Met Opera was that,although the political point was made,the Opera patrons lost only five minutes of their time and the only smell they experienced was some of the hideous perfumes some people - men as well as women - chose to wear.

Sep. 26 2013 04:31 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Concetta, I always enjoy reading your comments!
Best wishes.

Sep. 26 2013 01:41 PM
concetta nardone

My dear Carol, not only am I an American Italian but my father was a Vesuvian and we certainly do know about explosions. Always watch tv specials about Pompeii and Herculanum. I hope I am not offending anyone as I tend to be a little on the salty side.
Best wishes to all.

Sep. 26 2013 12:38 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

MarkNY, there is a Formula 1 Race upcoming next year in Russia. I wonder if there will be protests there. Also wonder if Putin, who likes to show what a manly man he is,will attempt to race one of those autos.
Best wishes

Sep. 26 2013 11:02 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Concetta, as you can see by my last name, I have an Italian background also. Maybe we Italians like to start kerfufels - it sure helps liven things up a little! By the way, I share a birthday with Verdi - another great Italian!

Sep. 26 2013 11:00 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Yes Carol, I do believe we have a rather mild donneybrook going on and that is a good thing. WQXR blog occasionally can be a little boring and oh so la di da. I exclude Fred Plotkin. Love his columns, but then, he is an Honorary Italian.

Sep. 26 2013 10:42 AM from Nassau

Mark: We should watch our own gardens grow. Russian internal affairs are not our business.
Cliff: Gays are the backbone of the Met audience? A bit much.
As for the story on which the opera was based, there is a very dreary film "Onegin" with Ralph Fiennes. It could have used the ballroom music from the opera to liven it up. The Russian folk music was nice. The film was something to commit suicide by.
Best wishes to all and I look forward to sending in some more snarky remarks when needed.

Sep. 26 2013 08:24 AM

Carol: "There was a group of protesters outside the opera house - wasn't that enough?"


Sep. 26 2013 02:17 AM
Andrew Rudin from Allentown, NJ

The delay that was caused by the vocal protest inside the opera was far less of a disruption than the interminable pauses for scene changes, which dragged out the evening (with two intermissions) to Wagnerian lengths, something Tchaikowsky most definitely would not have approved. To me, the cluttered and rather grim scenic concept looked like something retrieve from the Met warehouse, maybe left over from the 1930's. Is there nothing between this sort of outdated literalism and Eurotrash, with Onegin and Lensky being lovers? Phooey. And the Tatiana I expected from Netrebko simply did not materialize. She looks 20 years too old and 30 pounds too heavy for Tatiana. Only Lensky truly moved me. Without the protest, it would have been a tedious evening. But, I'm glad the Met raised $6 million. And I DO love the place, though I doubt Peter Gelb believes me. In the end, he gave us everything I'd hoped for when I started the petition. Actually, quite a bit more.

Sep. 25 2013 10:31 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

No one is saying that people can't protest. There was a group of protesters outside the opera house - wasn't that enough?

Sep. 25 2013 09:59 PM

I agree, Concetta. The opera goers had their concert delayed by five minutes - how awful! To think that they had to wait so long to hear about people being beaten to death in Russia as a result of the law passed by the man Gergiev so ardently supports - how uncivil of them!

Of course, the issue and the protest got international coverage, but that's far less important than ensuring that the patrons of the Met don't have their gala evening disturbed in any way.

And please, let's make sure that the upcoming Olympics in Sochi are not affected by this - I'd hate for the organizers to be in any way disturbed by some "human rights" issue. Thank god that nothing interfered with the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany - we should make absolutely sure that the same silence occurs in Sochi!

Sep. 25 2013 07:06 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Concetta, you took the words right out of my mouth! And yes, csn3 from Nassau, I think we do have another kerfufel going!

Sep. 25 2013 02:13 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

The chronic malcontents also interfered with the enjoyment of the opera goers who payed a rather nice sum to go to the opera.

Sep. 25 2013 02:06 PM from Nassau

Mr. Flanders, Gays are among the well-off in this country according to some statistics. Thank God for that. Truly. When gays are abused in America, the criminals are prosecuted and thank God for that too. Russia is not our neighborhood.
Carol, do we have another kerfufel going? I hope so.

Sep. 25 2013 12:54 PM
Frank from UWS

Good for the protesters. Gergiev and Netrebko aren't just "going along" with things in Russia - they actively campaigned for Putin. That's the difference. The Met has the right to stay out of it if they wish, but the artists should hear from the public on this issue.

Sep. 25 2013 11:45 AM
Cliff Flanders from New York, NY

The protests were entirely appropriate. Gay people are the backbone of the Met's audience. While I appreciate Ms. Nardone's comment, I do not understand what possible good is done by pitting the very important issue of world hunger against the very important issue of human rights abuses.

Sep. 25 2013 11:11 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Thanks, Concetta. I think your idea is a good one.

Sep. 25 2013 10:10 AM
Bo from Long Island

So sad...

Sep. 25 2013 09:06 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Can we discuss musical and textual topics? The final chorus, (in Number 20) before Gremin's aria, was cut. Appropriately, Monsieur Triquet's number was sung in French (there's a Russian alternative in the score). Listening to the stream, I sat back and enjoyed the orchestra and chorus throughout, which to me are "givens" in every production. I was equally delighted in Tatiana, Onegin and Lensky's portrayals throughout. I thought Tatiana, Olga, Mme. Larina and Filipievna blended beautifully in Scene I, but Gremin's aria seemed a bit wooly to my ears. Lensky's aria, on the whole, brought to mind the recording of Master Singer Nicolai Gedda.

Sep. 25 2013 08:35 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Can we discuss musical and textual topics? The final chorus, (in Number 20) before Gremin's aria, was cut. Appropriately, Monsieur Triquet's number was sung in French (there's a Russian alternative in the score). Listening to the stream, I sat back and enjoyed the orchestra and chorus throughout, which to me are "givens" in every production. I was equally delighted in Tatiana, Onegin and Lensky's portrayals throughout. I thought Tatiana, Olga, Mme. Larina and Filipievna blended beautifully in Scene I, but Gremin's aria seemed a bit wooly to my ears. Lensky's aria, on the whole, brought to mind the recording of Master Singer Nicolai Gedda.

Sep. 25 2013 08:35 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Thank you Carol,my sentiments exactly.
To the protesters, 1 in 5 Americans do not have enough to eat. Why not donate what you paid for the tickets and instead donate to the various pantries around the country. Stop being such a bunch of b--l busters. Yes, I do donate.

Sep. 25 2013 07:17 AM
Bobanker from Georgia

If Mr. Gelb were to take a political stance, would that split the audience and reduce future attendance?

Sep. 24 2013 10:20 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

What's with the reference to Tchaikovsky as "Russia's foremost gay composer"? Tchaikovsky is Russia's foremost composer - period!

Sep. 24 2013 07:03 PM
MaryJo Wagner from Denver

Looking forward to Onegin in HD in a couple of weeks. Probably no protest but certainly agree with the sentiment.

Sep. 24 2013 05:16 PM

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