Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The unauthorized premiere

Eugene Onegin - Metropolitan Opera, 11/23/2013
Mattei, Poplavskaya, Villazon, Maximova, Kocan / Vedernikov

Director of record Fiona Shaw was visibly present in the audience of this first November Onegin -- and why not? For the new conductor and cast made of this Chekovian "realist" production what she, Deborah Warner, and the rest of the team surely envisioned when they signed up for a season premiere. The chronological premiere, with Netrebko and Gergiev, frankly stunk... but this night put right everything that was wrong then, and viewing it as the real first night seems proper.

Russian conductor Alexander Vedernikov seems a throwback: compared to his countrymen this season, he has neither the striking looks and hair of Vladimir Jurowski nor the personal presence of Gergiev. But Vedernikov, unlike his more famous predecessor in this show, has lost no interest in Onegin, and offers exactly the intense, engaged, fully lyric and dramatic -- with scene building upon scene -- account one would expect from the (former) head of a great Russian company.

I feared that Marina Poplavskaya's humorlessness might sink this show as it did Faust, but -- like Vedernikov -- she brought credit to the notion of Russian cultural patrimony. In full contrast to Netrebko's abominably slack faux-Tatiana, Poplavskaya's heroine is terribly, inescapably alive: if she's nearly as dumbstruck in company as her predecessor, the torrent of sensibility lurking therein and at last released in private makes for a much different whole. That moment when, after having shooed her nanny from her room, she barricades the door so that she may uninterruptedly expand her soul into that space... it's a lightning bolt that not only defines her character, but almost makes sense of the sterile, over-civilized physical fussiness with which this show has replaced the previous production's lyric suggestions.

On this opening night Poplavskaya was in less-than-prime voice: perhaps from winter ailment, the top notes were somewhat raw and uncontrolled. But this Tatiana was nevertheless her greatest Met triumph to date.

Peter Mattei was no less great. The role of Onegin, like Don Giovanni, shows off -- and subverts -- his personal charisma in a way that seems, as much as Vargas' Lenski, just definitive. In the first acts he's commanding and affable with a substratum of ice, as careless with his charm as he isn't with his person -- "that cold dandy penetrated to the marrow with worldly bon ton" (Tchaikovsky's words) in the flesh. In the second, his natural unreflective confidence wobbled by the duel, he's as heart-rendingly direct as in that Amfortas when the recognition of love fells Onegin entirely. Between him and Poplavskaya the musical-dramatic charge built to such a level that the production's mirroring conceit -- having Tatiana kiss Onegin and run off at the end, as Onegin had kissed her and (rather more jauntily) left at the first act's close -- had some force this time, despite a spectacularly ill-timed cell phone intervention.

*     *     *

Though this run triumphed where the September/October original had failed, it also fell short where that first cast had succeeded. Most notable, of course, was the Met return of tenor Rolando Villazon after his career-upending trainwreck in a Lucia five years ago. Villazon made a New York return in fall 2012 at a Carnegie Hall Verdi Requiem, where he showed a still perilously-fragmentary voice. He was better in this Lenski -- and he may have improved in subsequent performances after the hurdle of the official house return -- but this was not a particularly pleasant listen. The voice is now more-or-less coherent, though inconsistent and even more recessed on top than his pre-crisis form (and his top notes were not that impressive even then); the breath that used to be his glory now comes and goes, and doesn't work on high notes. But the nervous charge that made Villazon so interesting on stage seems to have turned on itself (and like his newly-limited breath cuts off longer expression), so that instead of a poet chopped down too soon (reasonably impersonated by Piotr Beczala earlier in the year) we see a malcontent neurotic pressing to an inevitable doom. (The curse and rebuff of Onegin at the end of the party comes here not from a slow-burning sense of having been hurt or wronged, but from a paroxysm of resentful rage.) This does make a sort of awful sense of the character -- though it sits poorly with the reflective strain of "Kuda, kuda" -- but it demands an Onegin that can hold full audience interest. Fortunately, this show had one.

Besides Beczala's Lenski, the other strength of the September/October cast was Oksana Volkova's distinct and lively Olga. Elena Maximova was a good enough replacement, but, as has usually been the case with Olgas here, not particularly interesting in her character's ordinariness.

Stefan Kocan was as impressive as always -- here as Gremin. With apparently no attempt to make him look old, the balance of the story changed unexpectedly. With a less interesting Onegin this too would have been fatal.

*     *     *

Filled with an ordinary or dull lead pair, the elaborate social details and act-ending conceits of Shaw and Warner's production seemed just fussy. But as scene and contrast to the explosive, year's-best confrontations between Poplavskaya and Mattei, the fussiness worked well enough, and even the transposition of the last meeting to an outdoor snowstorm made sense. Still not as satisfying as the previous Robert Carsen production, but then we did get another great Carsen show soon after.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.