9 February 2016
Onegin, on stage and on screen
by Steve Cohen
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
I was fortunate to see two performances of the Metís Eugene Onegin within the week. Fortunate, firstly, because the cast and orchestra were exceptionally good. And, secondly, because it gave me a chance to compare.
In person, in the house, on Wednesday night I saw a gorgeous production, beautifully sung, with lush orchestral sound. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Onegin, Renee Fleming is Tatiana, Ramůn Vargas is Lenski, Sergei Aleksashkin is Prince Greminn and Elena Zaremba is Olga. All of them create convincing characters and sing expressively, as do Svetlana Volkova, Larisa Shevchenko and Richard Bernstein among the supporting cast. Chemistry was present on stage, and the frustrations and heartbreak of Onegin and Tatiana were affecting.
The only drawback was a slight lack of volume by Fleming, explained in an announcement after intermission that she was singing despite having a cold. Her voice showed no huskiness and no strain, however. She soars at the top and is appropriately dark at the bottom of her range. It is one of the best roles ever for this versatile soprano.
Four days earlier I saw the same cast on screen as the Met presented the production live in high definition at selected movie theaters. Here Flemingís volume was stronger and she was stunning visually and vocally. Hvorostovsky in both performances had beauty of tone, expressiveness and striking good looks which explain why Tatiana falls for him at their first meeting. His bronze voice gleams, especially in the beautifully-focused high notes during his Act One rejection of Tatiana.
The big advantage of HD at the movies is that you see every facial nuance. In addition, English titles are on screen so you donít have to lower your gaze to refresh your memory of exactly what the Russian words mean. Another attraction of the screened presentation is the backstage interviews between acts, and the closeups of conductor Valery Gergiev and his first-chair orchestral players.
On the other hand, thereís nothing like the ambience of the in-house experience. One specific that must be seen in person is the atmospheric lighting of this production. Varying intensities of gold, yellow, cream and amber flood the stage, reflecting changes in mood and action.
An unusual scene change defies our expectations at the end of the duel scene in which Onegin kills Lenski. Instead of an intermission to cover the passage of five years, this production has Onegin walk downstage and allow himself to be dressed by servants for his appearance at Prince Greminís ball while Lenskiís body is lifted, carried past him and taken off as the orchestra plays the dance music that opens the next act. The curtain never falls. This is a stunning way of showing how the killing remains in Oneginís mind despite his efforts to immerse himself in entertainment. The moment is effective in the screened closeup but is even more breathtaking when you see it in person.
The sound of the orchestra seemed almost too impassioned in the movie house. Gergievís interpretation was a bit over the top, although the subject matter can justify that approach. In person at the Metropolitan, however, the orchestra sounded completely convincing. This is a large house and some of the orchestraís volume dissipates in the air so what seems bold at the movies seems just right in the theater.
These were the last two performances of Onegin this season. Let's hope the production returns soon.
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Text: © Steve Cohen