Met Season Opens With Slow ‘Onegin’: Manuela Hoelterhoff

The Metropolitan Opera opened its season on Monday with Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

Never has Russia seemed so small and the opera so long.

This just may have been slowest performance since 1879 when Moscow first heard this sumptuously melodic opera about a bookish country girl humiliated by a puffed up dandy.

By the time Anna Netrebko (Tatiana), Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin) and Piotr Beczala (Lenski) took their curtain calls to much applause, it was almost 11 p.m. and four-and-a-half hours since the opening scene.

Did Valery Gergiev have too many of the honey cakes or whatever they were baking so mysteriously behind the scrims and roll-up curtains at the Larin estate outside St. Petersburg? The usually tireless maestro was having a sleepy night.

When that dully adoring old guy, Prince Gremin, sang his song about how love has changed his life, we seemed just a heartbeat away from rigor mortis.

“Shoot me too, please,” my companion said as Lenski and Onegin aimed rifles at each other. Very interesting. Typically, the two hotheads use pistols, not shotguns that could drop an elephant and at least two small Polish tenors at once.

The production by Deborah Warner has just a few such moments of wonder.

First seen at London’s English National Opera, it’s a modest, traditional show, featuring servants in crisp aprons, mournful senior mezzos and lots of happy peasants, though a few seemed to be raping a ballet dancer early on. My view was slightly obstructed.

Mother Russia

Mostly they garden. During the course of the first act, the porch filled with basket upon basket of fruits and vegetables until Tatiana looked like she was running a packing station for Fresh Direct.

Fiona Shaw stepped in to direct the production when Warner was sidelined by surgery. Since Shaw, a longtime friend and collaborator, also was rehearsing “The Rape of Lucretia” for Glyndebourne’s touring company, the Met’s premiere may not have received her full attention.

There are only so many hours in the day and before you know it night falls and you slump to the floor all tuckered out from writing long letters to cynical strangers or Post-its for rehearsals with reluctant singers.

Huddled Masses

Those peasants sure had trouble making their entrances and exits on Tom Pye’s cramped sets, which seemed overwhelmed by the vastness of the Met stage. Once the chorus squeezed through the main door, the singers either turned around or huddled near the prompt box. I quite preferred the elegantly spare, moodily autumnal production by Robert Carsen that opened here in the late 1990s.

Only the dueling scene on a frosty morning had the kind of depth that pulls you into a story, especially as infused with Jean Kalman’s melancholy lighting. The Gremins live in a palace with gigantic columns and not much else. Tatiana doesn’t have a bedroom in which to write her letter, but stays put with the vegetables.

Inexplicably, there were long breaks between scenes to accommodate the repositioning of a few chairs causing widespread confusion in the audience (people stood up, people sat down).

Wonderful Singing

This went on throughout the evening in which the singing was mostly wonderful, beginning with two fine mezzos past their glory years: Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina and Larissa Diadkova as Tatiana’s nurse.

Beczala was all poetry as Lenski and touched the heart as he put on his glasses for the duel. Kwiecien didn’t exude much allure in his first scenes with Tatiana but rose to the emotional challenge of the parting.

Having rejected the young, romantic Tatiana, Onegin begs in vain for a new beginning with the poised beauty who has married a prince.

Though fairly new to the role, Netrebko, a beautiful woman who doesn’t mind looking plain when required, infused every arching phrase with longing. She’s in her prime now as an actress and singer.

Dressed in furs, as snow fell quietly during her assignation with Onegin, she faltered, then pulled herself together. Suddenly, as the duet was ending, she kissed him like a lover, only to turn away and walk off stage in silence.

The orchestra suddenly stopped. It was an inspired directorial touch. If only there had been more. In those few seconds, we absorbed Onegin’s shock as his future disappeared.

Then the music crashed to the end, leaving him sobbing in the snow.

Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

Click here for details of the gala opening.

To read General Manager Peter Gelb’s response to requests that the company dedicate the opening of “Eugene Onegin” to Russian’s harassed gay community, click here.

“Eugene Onegin” runs in repertory at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, through Dec. 12. Information: +1-212-362-6000; The opera also will be shown in theaters live in HD on Oct. 5 and later telecast on the Public Broadcasting Service.

The production is a gift of Ambassador and Mrs. Nicholas F. Taubman.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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