Eugene Onegin, Metropolitan Opera, New York – review

When the Met opened its 129th season on Monday with a quasi-new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, there was plenty of drama. Not much of it took place onstage.

Reacting to Vladimir Putin’s recent anti-gay pronouncements, an organisation called Queer Nation petitioned the company to dedicate the premiere to victims of sexual persecution in Russia. It was noted, ironically, that Tchaikovsky himself was gay.

Peter Gelb, the super-impresario on the premises, expressed generalised sympathy, but, citing political neutrality, rejected Met involvement. Complicating matters, the conductor on duty was Valery Gergiev, a close Putin ally, and the heroine was Anna Netrebko, an official Putin advocate.

At performance time, protesters were banished to a tiny park across the plaza. Leaflets materialised everywhere. Inside the hall, after the dressy first-nighters intoned the “Star-Spangled Banner”, voices rang out for five minutes from the upper balconies. The exact words were indistinct. The angry attitudes were not.

Then there was the complicated question of who staged this Onegin, and how. When the same production was introduced at the English National Opera in 2011, the director was Deborah Warner. Unfortunately, illness prevented her from participating in the New York version – which entailed a larger stage plus a switch to the original Russian text – and her associate Fiona Shaw officially took over. But, busy with her own production of The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, Shaw could not attend all rehearsals. If the show went on fairly smoothly against the odds, it hardly erased memories of the imaginative Robert Carsen production first seen here in 1997.

Warner’s essential narration seldom strays from convention, even if the sets, designed by Tom Pye, vacillate between strong realism and weak expressionism, tarnishing logic in the process. The first act, previously performed in a barn, now takes place in a greenhouse. Poor Tatiana writes her fateful letter in a mock-bedroom that lacks a bed. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography favours a semblance of eager amateurism over divertissement ritual.

Gergiev, who may have led this national staple 50 times too many, reinforced rote sentimentality in the pit, stressing sluggish tempos and leaden accents. Although obviously intelligent, elegant and dedicated, Mariusz Kwiecien remained a lightweight protagonist, vocally as well as physically. Conversely, for all his focused fervour, Piotr Beczala sounded more heroic than necessary as the introspective Lenski. Oksana Volkova contributed a hyper-vivacious Olga. Larissa Diadkova offered object lessons in minor-character delineation as the nurse Filippyevna, but Alexei Tanovitski’s buzz-saw basso made a mess of Prince Gremin’s great aria. Under the circumstances, the evening belonged to Netrebko, who reinforced the heroine’s pathos with limpid tone, expressive point, dynamic sensitivity and unexpected restraint.

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