Does anyone -- outside, perhaps, the school groups who populate the upper levels of a dress rehearsal -- read the miscellany of quotes patched together for each broadcast opera at the Met Broadcast website? The Eugene Onegin page includes this pre-emptive lament by the composer:
Where shall I find the Tatyana whom Pushkin imagined and whom I have tried to picture in music? Where is the artist who can even approach the ideal Onegin, that cold dandy penetrated to the marrow with worldly bon ton? Where is there a Lensky, an eighteen-year-old youth with the thick curls and impetuous and original ways of a young poet a la Schiller? How Pushkin's charming and original picture will be vulgarized when it is transferred to the stage, with its routine, its senseless traditions, its veterans of both sexes who ... shamelessly take on the roles of sixteen-year-old girls and beardless youths.In fact, the opera works for a fair range of Tatyanas, Onegins, and Lenskys -- broader, anyway, than the viable character range in, say, Der Rosenkavalier. Still, I think the current revival gets two of these three exactly right in a way that feels unprecedented.
Ramón Vargas as Lensky I've already praised. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is about as remarkable, despite being bored with his role. His public and stage persona is Onegin, "that cold dandy penetrated to the marrow with worldly bon ton": as Maury put it, "his vocal suavity and the hint of coldness about him are Onegin in a nutshell". So perhaps Hvorostovsky's bored with his own part in the world -- which, too, fits Pushkin's creation. At any rate, he sounds great, his endless breath making much of Onegin's brush-off of Tatyana.
But Hvorostovsky's excellent Onegin is a detached one, not the self-involved actor that Thomas Hampson last made of him. So the story needs a more active Tatyana, and there unfortunately Renée Fleming isn't the best. Now she makes an overall success of her part, keeping unfortunate Fleming-isms in check and well deploying The Beautiful Voice, particularly in the finale. But both temperament and voice are best suited to the rapt, contemplative side of Tatyana's part and not the declamation that makes up so much of her letter scene. It's an uneasy fit, more noticable next to these ideal male colleagues.
Elena Zaremba (the Olga) shows two main virtues: she's Russian, and she looks plausible as Fleming's sister. The rest is unobjectionable, but doesn't this golden age of mezzos call for better?
The real star of the last revival, I thought, was Vladimir Jurowski. The warm sound and old-school phrasing he drew from the pit filled in perfect complement the cool open expanses of Robert Carsen's production. This time Jurowski's more famous Russian colleague, Valery Gergiev, takes a more objective approach to the score. On opening night (heard over the wire, anyway) Gergiev whipped through Act I with dramatic fire, carrying Fleming and Hvorostovsky along in an awesome climax that later acts couldn't recapture. On Tuesday he was more deliberate, almost frustratingly so at the beginning. It seemed more of an epic than dramatic reading: about the only really consistent thing was Gergiev's love of playing dance music incredibly fast. With such a mercurial, dramatically responsive conductor, the difference could simply be in the temperature of the audience.
Whatever Pushkin's poem shows, I'm not sure Onegin comes off so badly in Tchaikovsky's rendering. Now his provocation of Lensky is pretty low, but what about that garden scene? It seems to me he does as well as one could in that situation: being rejected is hard, but having to reject honest feeling is terribly tricky. I've always been sympathetic, even (or particularly!) while on the receiving end.
In fact, the opera may take almost as bleak a view of coupled happiness as, say, Bluebeard's Castle. Though they may talk of what might have been, is it not clear that Onegin's desire arose from Tatyana's new remoteness, as hers was inflamed by his cold nature? And the expressive, mutual love of Olga and Lensky -- it's too much to take: she gets bored, even if only for that short, fatal span. Ah, love.
UPDATE (1:25PM): I forgot to mention that I believe the lighting has been changed from the previous revival. The end of the letter scene, in particular, seems different (it's all lit instead of moon&stars), but there may be other altered elements. (Or I may be misremembering.) Is this to accomodate the movie-cast?