Sunday, February 15, 2009

Met - Eugene Onegin - 02/14/09

By Piotr Tchaikovsky
Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Director: Peter McClintock
Eugene Onegin: Thomas Hampton
Tatiana: Karita Mattila
Lenski: Piotr Beczala

What more could a girl want for Valentine's Day than enjoying some prime quality time at the Met with her first two musical coups de foudre? While Tchaikovsky is definitely the one who got me to stop and listen to classical music, my first taste of opera was Puccini's Tosca, and he had me at "Recondita Armonia". Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was part of my Met subscription yesterday, and I couldn't resist adding Puccini's La Rondine as my evening treat. Incidentally, I also got to hear a solid couple of hours of James Brown in the morning on my way to the Big Apple. You can always trust public transportation to keep you connected with pop culture... But by early afternoon I was back in a familiar environment and more than ready for some Russian drama.

Being a die-hard Tchaikovsky fan does not mean I am the ultimate groupie blindingly following her idol. Although the heart-on-sleeve quality of his work rarely fails to get to me, I do confess some reservations about his sometimes unrestrained tendency towards overbearing grandiloquence. Eugene Onegin, however, blissfully refrains for the most part from mushy sentimentality while oozing technical virtuosity and graceful melodies.
Tatiana's famed letter scene and Prince Gremin's ode to love found at last remain two of the composer's most touching compositions, and the final confrontation between Tatiana and Onegin had an eerily Chekhovian poignancy while reminiscing of what might have been and is now irremediably lost. Drawn from a poem by Pushkin, who also inspired The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky's other most popular opera, Eugene Onegin is first and foremost a surprisingly sensitive drama of unfulfilled love.
Thomas Hampton's natural poise and elegance combined with his richly nuanced baritone voice easily made him the quintessential Onegin, but the shining star of this production was the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who brought inborn demureness to her heroïn while making sure that her violent feelings were being heard. The steel resolve she showed when faced with the possibility of finally getting what she had so ardently desired, but finally choosing the path of rightfulness was particularly heart-breaking without falling into the traps of cheap melodrama. The Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was a wonderfully expressive Lenski and sang his farewell-to-life aria as if there were no tomorrow indeed. Last, but not least, James Morris made an indelible impression in his short appearance as Prince Gremin.
The stage stayed mostly bare throughout the whole story, except for a few strategically placed props and some quietly efficient lighting. The outdoor rural scenes were attractively enhanced by a whole carpet of multi-colored leaves, the ball at the country estate soberly conveyed just the right amount of pleasure and ennui, and the glittery world of imperial Russia was emphasized with sumptuously understated décor and costumes, the final, uniformly black outfits somberly warning of the tragic end.

An undeniable stand-out in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, this Eugene Onegin remains a deeply romantic story, and this daringly economical production fortuitously allows the singers to hold center stage and fully project their complex characters' tortured minds. In this case, less is more indeed.

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