Eugene Onegin -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/30/09
Hampson, Mattila, Beczala, Semenchuk, Aleksashkin / Belohlávek
In Robert Carsen's brilliantly suggestive production of Onegin, conductor Vladimir Jurowski was once (2001-02) insistently, magically lyrical; some years later his countryman Valery Gergiev was, when "on" (and I think the very first night of the run may have been best), febrile and dramatic. On this occasion Czech conductor Jiri Belohlávek is neither unlyrical nor undramatic, but more thoroughly -- well, having already mentioned two of three classical poetic modes, one could do worse than to dub Belohlávek's style here "epic". There is an ever-present solid undercurrent to his management of time that seems to keep his phrases proportioned to each other and makes scene after scene build in cumulative effect, as each mood -- from the well-trod homilies of the beginning to the emotional tug-of-war at the end and the dances (from peasants to local gentry to Petersburg high society) interspersed throughout -- gets its due in its place. His overall equanimity brings out a touch of Pushkin's broader, more varied scope in Tchaikovsky's tightly focused lyric scenes.
Belohlávek's overall conception is whole and balanced enough to contain and frame (without toppling) the huge impassioned outbursts in the three leads' performances. Czech tenor Piotr Beczala, as Lensky, makes an excellent impression, if perhaps one not as well-focused as Ramon Vargas in the last revival. The aria ("Kuda, kuda") was, of course the highlight: after an early near-mishap, Beczala combined truly gorgeous soft singing with a forceful plaintive squillo at the top of the staff. This wide effective dynamic range and a certain liquid quality to his sound give him some impressive tools in this lyric tenor repertoire. My only gripe is that as a character, he seems -- like nearly all of his predecessors -- more a poetic man (sensitive and vulnerable to currents of feeling), and perhaps a modern one at that, than an actual romantic poet: once one has seen the distraction from mundane things suffusing Vargas' Lensky, one misses it in others.
Karita Mattila is, well, herself. The question going in was whether the character of Tatyana was big enough for her explosive spirits. It turns out that it is -- and the person who emerges from their meeting is glorious: not a more-or-less ordinary (if dreamy) woman in extremis but an extraordinary young woman who for the first time shows her true scale. There is, as ever, pathos in the letter scene, but rather more this time of the gripping awe Mattila inspires in full physical and vocal flight: this Tatyana is sister to her Eva and Elsa and Chrysothemis and Jenufa and even Salome, ready not exactly to submit to fate but to challenge it and bear, if necessary, its blow.
It comes, as it must, from the chilly, not-quite-real facade of Onegin, played to perfection by the chilly, not-quite-real standard affect of baritone Thomas Hampson. But in Hampson, at least since his terrific Amfortas in the 2006 Parsifal, remarkable outbursts of agonized suffering can overpower that standard affect when wanted. This side, too, finds good expression in the opera: when, in the last scene, his and Mattila's characters trade emotional blows... well, Hampson is not the more impressive, but he holds his own. The two here inspire a mutual fever pitch that needs no allowances.
Now with such a Tatyana it is not surprise (and in fact many don't carry this part of the role off) but inevitability that she becomes a grand figure, in the particular case by marriage to Gremin. In this one-aria part I think Sergei Aleksashkin does an admirable job, clear in voice and expression as he lays out the virtues of Tatyana, the vices of society, and his unreserved love for the former. Also effective in his one aria is tenor Tony Stevenson, who as Triquet gives Tatyana the ridiculously but winningly shaped French praise she's too preoccupied to much accept. Meanwhile I didn't think much of Ekaterina Semenchuk, but perhaps she just does too good a job singing a narrow if flighty character. On the other hand, her Pauline and Daphnis (in the fall's Queen of Spades) were also pretty limited.
The production, incidentally, seems to be in the revised form shown on (and perhaps done for) the moviecast and DVD/Blu-Ray. I'm not sure why the original letter scene conclusion -- with Tatyana spinning around under stars -- was chopped and remains unrestored. In this case, though, Mattila ended up rolling around a bit on the fallen leaves, a sensual touch that's probably a more fitting climax for one of her characters than just the spinning.