Thursday, October 10, 2013

The blank page

Eugene Onegin - Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013
Kwiecien, Netrebko, Beczala, Volkova, Tanovitski / Gergiev

It's strange irony that the great stage actress Fiona Shaw, who's made her name with a rare and forceful talent for the extreme, is credited with directing an Onegin that, at least in its current incarnation, is most notable for the quiet details of its social-comic background. It's not her doing that the leads fizzle or that Gergiev feels obligated to make up for any exciting bit with a followup of utter slackness, but given these things we at least get a bit of the social observation that makes up much of Pushkin's original text. That's something... just not enough to justify a season-opener or moviecast.

I've seen sopranos fail or fall short in singing Tatyana, but I've never before witnessed one who seemed not to want to try. When Anna Netrebko started off the first act completely blank, I thought it might be the sort of lying-low she's used at the start of Manon and elsewhere to contrast with her more forward turns. But -- amazing to see -- even the letter scene brought neither urgency nor any particular emotion... nor, despite some impressive awake-at-last pit work by Gergiev, even the intensification of presence to signal the seizing of her scene -- just more routine phrasing and slightly louder singing. Nor is this just some misguided emphasis on Tatyana's rural backwardness: her high-society incarnation is no less blankly sullen, and only by the far-too-late final scene do we see traces of sonic-dramatic life.

How could Netrebko so utterly miss having a character? Perhaps she went literally by the descriptions her nurse and family give in the first act: pale, quiet, shy and downcast. That's fair enough, as far as it goes, but to look at this as Tatyana's central truth is to miss the crucial point of Romanticism, the significance of its characteristic subjectivity: that we are not merely our social manifestations, that not only our souls but our personal experience of existence may be significant -- and communicable. It's a contested subjectivity -- by indifference, rejection, competition, consequence, physical limitation, and, most characteristic in Romanticism's transplantation to the foreign space of Imperial Russia, the social order itself -- but one that's never far from the Romantic foreground. Particularly in this opera, in this very scene: Tchaikovsky has not only shaped the epic verse-novelist's view of the Pushkin original into lyric scenes, but has put the central (letter) scene inside the heroine's enflamed subjectivity as it cries for the intimate extra-social connection of communication. That she does not find it -- or rather, with tragic irony, finds it only asynchronously -- doesn't make what's revealed in her a null.

In fact it almost doesn't matter what the inner truth of Tatyana turns out to be: the opera has made sense here with the mercurial fragility of Solveig Kringleborn, the rapt earnestness of Renee Fleming, and the explosive frame-bursting grandeur of Karita Mattila. What matters is that she has one, and that the Letter Scene opens it out to us. Netrebko's doesn't.

Making matters worse is the cipher of Mariusz Kwiecien's Onegin. Yes, Onegin is meant to be a bit of a cipher, who until that second meeting with Tatyana may not himself know who, if anyone, he is and what, if anything, he wants. But he's a worldly cipher, one who begins having swum in the social sea so habitually that if his suavity ever lapses it's from jadedness or irritation, not awkwardness. Kwiecien, by contrast, offers a strangely alien (though somewhat reminiscent of his zestless Don Giovanni) Onegin, whose social manners and mannerisms seem constructed and imperfectly learned rather than second nature. And though it's awkward and assembled (and not, that is, attractive), we never do see what lies underneath... making Tatyana's attraction as wholly arbitrary as his rejection. Is this supposed to be Onegin as closet case, in an echo of Tchaikovsky's life experience? Unfortunately that -- or whatever is going on here -- makes nonsense of the actual events and thematic symmetry (he does become more attracted, after he's lost his social confidence and mooring, just as she becomes unable to reciprocate as she's gained hers -- again it's the classic Romantic contest between social and intimate existences) of the actual opera, which can't survive a lead couple with no connection or chemistry.

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Hardly less fatal to Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is poor conducting, which Valery Gergiev provides in surprisingly full measure. Netrebko and Kwiecien are relatively new to their parts, but Gergiev led what was honestly one of the great runs of Onegin (as one can still see) not too long ago. This time -- for this moviecast matinee, at least, though reports suggest similar work at the other performances -- he seems to have lost his grip on the whole of the piece. Like Netrebko, he begins with a slack blankness -- seemingly attempting to show the soporific backwater comfort of the Larins' by sonic demonstration -- and though he does perk up more than she for notable sequences, he insistently returns to laxness with each new scene. Gergiev has used a similarly broad range of tempi before, but never so haphazardly or without overall dramatic perspective. Perhaps he was spooked by the protest (the current audience is protective and adulatory), or is bored of the old war-horse, or is as nonplussed by Netrebko as I was. In any case, he's no help.

Best here were the second couple. Bolshoi mezzo Oksana Volkova -- the premiere Maddalena in last season's new Rigoletto is something like the ideal Olga, about the only part that's been poorly cast here over the years. Piotr Beczala is, if anything, a better Lensky than he was for the otherwise much more successful 2009 run, closer to the specific joy and tragedy of the character while retaining his pleasingly plaintive lyric sound. Alexei Tanovitski (formerly spelled Tanovitsky for his Met appearances) as Gremin was more memorable than he was here as Wotan and less memorable than as the friar/ghost of Charles V. John Graham-Hall was a good Triquet, and I can't believe Larissa Diadkova is already at the point where she's singing the nurse (well enough, but really?).

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It's not entirely clear to me how much Shaw and her collaborator-predecessor Deborah Warner are to blame for the wrongheaded and energy-sucking characterizations offered by the leads. In any case, they and their production colleagues do mostly provide a nicely textured human and physical background to the central drama that should (and in some future revival undoubtedly will) appear, though it in no way betters the evocativeness and lyric/realistic alternation of Robert Carsen's previous show. (Adding the second intermission back is no favor either.) Some of the directorial touches go too far -- having Onegin and Lensky embrace after they sing that they can't have that moment of connection and forgiveness is inane -- but that, too, can be remedied over time.

Next month's cast will have in Peter Mattei an Onegin long on suavity and outer charm (as well as, when called upon, unforgettably tortured singing). But I'm having a hard time thinking of a lyric soprano less temperamentally suited to Tatyana than Marina Poplavskaya, though I'm sure she'll at least go all-out in the Letter Scene. (Is Tatyana joining Marguerite as a part that everyone finds easy to cast except Gelb?) And Villazon... well he wasn't "back" a year ago, and I'm not sure why it would be different now. We'll see.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.