Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Phil Grippi 10/14/13
Eugene Onegin review

The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of “Eugene Onegin” was visually appealing, if it a bit tedious (though that falls on the material), though enhanced by the surprisingly nuanced performances from it’s cast. Adapted from the 1879 opera by Piotyr Ilych Tchaikovsky, this iteration featured Anna Netrebko in the role of Tatyana and Mariusz Kwiecien in the role of the titular Eugene Onegin under the direction of Fiona Shaw. The telecast of the opera that I watched was surprisingly cinematic, showing the opera from various camera angles right there on the stage while maintaining the perspective of the proscenium arch. The camera even continued rolling between scene and followed the crew take down the set for the previous scene and replace it with that of the next, even occasionally providing interviews with some cast members and the behind the scenes higher ups. This helped the cinematic quality, establishing an almost documentary or concert movie type aesthetic, which helped re-contextualize the opera for the telecast format.
The music was very bold and dramatic, very sweeping in its instrumentation. I found that it did a good job of punctuating the action on stage, which I would imagine is the objective. Lyrically I found the opera a bit redundant at times, often amounting to the singers repeating the same sentiment, only in increasingly flowery language, but still essentially saying the same thing. Tis got particularly tiresome during Tatyana’s Aria in act 1, scene 2 (though I’m sure if I could understand Russian I’d have found the language much more poetic and beautiful). Having read the libretto it was certainly easier and faster to simply read through the lyrics than to sit and listen to them expanded and elongated over notes in another language by the singers (though the vocalizations were superb). It was helpful that I was familiar with the libretto beforehand as during various moments that featured multiple parties singing different parts simultaneously it became a little difficult to keep track of who was saying what.
The stage design was definitely a high point for me, especially during Onegin and Lensky’s duel in Act II, scene II as well as in the finale between Onegin and Tatyana. The duel took place at the edge a wooded stream during the early morning and was such an ambient screen to behold. The physical set composition was simplistic, consisting mostly of a few large branches on the ground and a few tree towards the back. What made the scene (aside from the great performances by Piotr Beczala as Lenski and Mariusz Kweicien as Ongein) was the use of fog, low key lighting and soft, simplistic dark blue background. This all culminated in a very moody, somber atmosphere befitting the subject matter of the scene (two friends made enemies engaging eachother in a duel to the death). The finale between Tatyana and Onegin also benefitted from dark, low key writing and dark blue back ground, which imbued the two rows of massive stone columns that made up the set with this monolithic silhouette effect resulting in a foreboding grandiosity befitting the larger-than-life drama between the two characters.
The performances that really resonated with were that of Piotr Beczala as Lenski and Mariusz Kweicien as Ongein in Act II. Their initial dispute leading up to the duel was authentically impassioned, but punctuated by continually growing moments of regretful lucidity. Lenski realizes that he will most likely die, while Onegin clearly wants no part of the duel but still answers Lenki’s challenge out of pride. The camera angles provided by the telecast crew provided for great up close shots of the actors as they each took hold of their rifles and walked away from one another for the last time, showing the great, silent performances of the actors. The pained reluctance felt by both characters and not expressed through song or wide gestures, but through the facial expressions of the actors.
All in all I greatly appreciated the more subtle moments of the opera as a matter of personal preference, as I generally don’t care for overwrought melodrama. However this production of “Eugene Onegin” still provided much entertainment through the performances of its cast and the stellar work done by the set design and lighting crew. Any negativity I had towards the production had to do with the tedious lyrics/ story, but on a technical level the opera was top notch.

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