This is my review of the Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee production of “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. I watched/heard, alas, not in the actual theater at Lincoln Center in New York City, but, second-best choice, in an IMAX movie theater in a small American town, sometimes known as “the armpit of the Northeast corridor”.
Spoiler alert: This production is excellent. If you want to go see it … well, I think you’re out of luck, because I believe that was the last performance of the season.
Anyhow, the show came together like a perfect blend: The orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music; orchestra conductor the amazingly expressive and curly-headed Robin Ticciati; a top-notch cast of international-class singers, headed by Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as the titular character (I love that word titular!); a “traditional” stage setting with “traditional” costumes (thank God they didn’t try something experimental, like setting the Larin estate on a World War II minesweeper in the Pacific Ocean, for example); an excellent dance troupe — this is Tchaikovsky, after all — Ticciati pointed out during his intermission-interview, that Tchaikovsky’s music is always balletic in its intent.
Let us briefly review the story upon which this opera is based, for the benefit of non-Russian opera lovers who didn’t necessarily grow up reading the story in school, as most Russian children do. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote his “novel in verse” over the course of his adult life but never completely finished this masterpiece. For many generations, readers have marvelled at the deceptive simplicity of Pushkin’s language, and at the elegant symmetry of the story itself. In which irony follows irony, and reaction follows action as precisely as in Newtonian physics.
Composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed, in 1878, his opera in three acts, based on Pushkin’s story. Tchaikovsky organized the libretto himself and used Pushkin’s actual verses wherever possible, and yet at times made some subtle changes to their context and meaning. For example, in Tchaikovsky’s version, the famous words of the opening stanza (“Мой дядя самых честных правил, Когда не в шутку занемог“) are spoken/sung by Onegin when he first meets Tatiana, as the newcomer thinks to impress the country girl with his adolescent cynicism.
As the opening stanza indicates, the young man Onegin arrives in this godforsaken Russian countryside, distant from the metropolis, when his uncle falls ill. Apparently Eugene is to inherit his uncle’s country estate, but at a heavy price: He is forced to live out in the boondocks, and to wait on his sick uncle hand and foot. While waiting for Uncle to die, Onegin meets and befriends his neighbor, Vladimir Lensky, a youth of the same age as Eugene, perhaps slightly younger. Lensky grew up in these parts – as a boy he played with the neighbor-girl, Olga Larina, and the two young people were intended, by their parents, to be married when they came of age. This part of the backstory is very reminiscent of elements of Alexander Griboedov’s play, “Woe From Wit“, namely the childhood friendship and puppy love of Chatsky and Sonia. Pushkin was highly beholden to Griboedov also for the image of his hero, and especially how he is perceived by society. There are other homages as well, which I shall mention later.
Onegin has the opportunity to meet his neighbors when Lensky brings him over to the Larin estate for the harvest celebration. That’s the one where the serfs polish the rutabagas and put on a rowdy “Parasha” dance for their masters. Bookworm Tatiana, the older of the two Larina sisters, can barely raise her head from her romantic novel, to watch the antics of the peasants. But then she spots the stranger from afar as Lensky rides up with Onegin, and she knows instantly: “He is the one!” Onegin is the one whom she must marry. She falls in love instantly, and blindly with the mysterious stranger.
There is a subtle indication that Onegin could possibly love Tatiana back, if he had allowed his feelings to develop: He says to Lensky, “You like the younger sister (Olga)? That’s surprising, I would have gone for the older one (Tatiana).”
That night, in a fever of passion, Tatiana writes her fateful love letter to the stranger and sends it off to him via peasant-mail. The very next day, Onegin returns to the Larin estate and has a frank conversation with Tatiana. If he were a cad, he could have easily seduced the girl by promising her love and marriage. He could have tossed her right onto her bed and had his way with her. Instead, he behaves rather honorably, in my opinion. He returns the letter intact, thus sparing her honor; and he tells her, kindly but clearly, almost in a fatherly manner, that he is just not into her. Or rather, it’s not her. It’s him. She’s perfect. If he was going to marry anybody, it would be her. But he’s not interested in love and marriage right now. Blah blah blah.
Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with what Onegin did. It’s what professional psychologists tell people to do when turning down unwanted proposals: Be kind and respectful of the other person’s feelings, but don’t lead them on. Be frank, be clear, don’t leave any room for fruitless hope, give them a chance to move on. However, both Pushkin, and every Russian schoolchild since that time, has hated on Onegin for crushing Tatiana’s spirit so ruthlessly. Tatiana herself, as expected, feels a deep humiliation, not just at her rejection, but at the way it was delivered, in the form of a patronizing sermon.
After that unfortunate incident, Onegin should probably steer clear of the Larin estate. But no… Lensky convinces him to go back one more time, because the Larins give the best parties. There is to be a ball that night, and Lensky has his dance card all filled up: Dance #1: Olga. Dance #2: Olga. Dance #3: Olga…. (etc etc). Onegin goes, under duress. He finds that he is not popular among the local gentry. This is where Tchaikovsky inserts even more homages to Griboedov: Just as Chatsky was rejected by the guests at Sonia’s mansion, so too these locals gossip among themselves about the stranger: “He is a Freemason! He is a no-goodnik!”
Disgusted with the provincialism and ignorance of the local yokels, Onegin decides on a cruel prank to punish his friend Lensky for bringing him there. Turning on his oily Byronic charm, Onegin embarks on a planned seduction of Olga on the dance floor. Flirtatious airhead Olga is receptive and dances the night away with the handsome stranger, while Lensky sits in the corner fuming in ineffectual rage. Lensky’s Othello-level jealousy leads to the inevitable duel. Onegin being the better shot, Lensky is just toast in spectacles.
And by the way, Pushkin’s attitude about sweet girls like Olga and their putative “constancy” was not dissimilar from that of Mozart’s. Jumping ahead in the story: After Lensky’s death, according to Pushkin, Olga rather quickly finds a new mate and forms a successful marriage. (Tchaikovsky left this bit out of his opera.) Hence, Lensky’s fantasy of the constant girl weeping at his grave was just that: a fantasy. Olga had bigger fish to fry: She needed to get married.
In Pushkin’s story, Onegin was forced to leave Dodge in a hurry, with the gendarmes on his tracks, after killing Lensky. He spends an undetermined number of years roaming around Europe. While he is gone, Tatiana gains access to Onegin’s estate, the friendly serfs show her around, she sees Onegin’s room and all his accessories. Examining his stuff, she comes to realize what an immature poseur he is, a Byron wannabe. And yet in spite of that, she still loves him. Because, see, her love is actually a real thing, not just a girlish crush.
Russian readers know, of course, how the story ends. With sublime irony and retribution. Tatiana grows up, marries an elderly General who is in favor at the Tsar’s court. Tatiana moves to Petersburg and hosts a lavish mansion. Unbeknownst to her, her husband is an old friend of Onegin’s family. Hence, Onegin gets an invite to the mansion, once he returns from exile. There he encounters Tatiana again, can’t believe it’s her, the skinny country bumpkin has grown into a beautiful worldly woman; and now he falls madly in love with her. Then everything happens in a mirror-like symmetry: Onegin sends Tatiana a love letter. She meets with him and rejects him back, using some of his own words. Moral of the story, actually 2 morals:
- If a girl says she loves you, then just grab her and toss her onto the bed like Christian Grey, the rougher the better; and
- A woman will never forget a rejection, even if she lives to be 100 years old!
The Death Of A Poet
Returning to our Met production:
In the supporting role of Lensky, rising young Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov ruled the famous stage at Lincoln Center! Dolgov has the perfect look, and the perfect voice for this role. He portrayed a studious and neurotic Lensky, constantly adjusting his glasses, a mostly sympathetic character, but revealing a flash of something unpleasant in his jealousy and possessiveness.
In Pushkin’s poem, Lensky is a bit of a joke, with his doggerel verses and social ineptness. He is only a rhymester who thinks that he is a poet. Most famous example being his pathos-ridden couplet:
“Сердечный друг, желанный друг,
Приди, приди: я твой супруг!..”
(“My darling friend, my dearest lovey,
Come to me, I’ll be your hubby!”)
In Tchaikovsky’s rendering, through the magic of music, Lensky’s doggerel is transformed into poetry: As Lensky pours out his heart, while awaiting Onegin’s arrival to the duel scene the audience keenly feels the young man’s pain and then mourns his untimely demise, at the hands of his empty and cynical friend.
If Dolgov looks the part of Lensky, this brings us to a possible uncomfortable topic in opera: When singers don’t physically look the part they are they are portraying. Newbies to opera don’t always get this fact: That opera singers are selected for their voices, more than for their looks. Oh, it’s great when the two coincide, but that isn’t always possible.
[to be continued]