Today’s post will conclude my review of the Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee production of “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. Which I watched in an American IMAX movie theater in Live HD streaming, a way of distributing culture to the masses, of which I wholly approve. While eating popcorn. And the theater was packed, by the way, in case you are wondering. And not just with little old ladies or white-haired Russian emigres. There were even tons of younger people there — which gives me hope! Because, like Whitney Houston said, the young people are the future!
Tchaikovsky’s opera is in three Acts, with two intermissions. Within each act there are some quick scene changes, and thank goodness for that — otherwise, we would be forced to endure a minimalistic all-purpose set with nothing but a long purple bench and a giant clock on the wall symbolizing the passage of time — and yes, I’m talking about YOU, unsuccessful staging and butchery of Verdi’s La Traviata! Putting aside that monstrosity, the nice thing about “Live in HD” are the bennies that we, as a movie theater audience, get. While audiences at the actual Met are sitting and buzzing to each other aimlessly, we, in the movie theater world, get to peek behind the scenes while the stage hands are quickly changing the scenery and spreading the styrofoam snow to make the Onegin set look more like a restaging of Dr. Zhivago!
So, what constitutes a good opera? I mean, in addition to the great voices. Where we left off in Part I of this review, I was approaching the sometimes uncomfortable topic of the physical appearance of opera singers. This becomes an issue sometimes when one is attempting to recruit, with missionary zeal, new converts to the world of Grand Opera.
Issues of Age, Gender, Size
Some newbies seem to expect that opera singers should be cast in the same way as actors in a Hollywood movie. For example, in the movie version, Tatiana would be portrayed by Emma Watson. During the first intermission, I overheard a lady in the lobby of the movie theater asking her daughter: “Do you like it?” The daughter replied, in a pure American accent: “I don’t like the girl playing Tatiana. She’s too fat, and too old.”
Now Anna Netrebko is 45 years old, and in truth, she has put on a lot of weight in recent years, especially after pushing out her baby. That happens to women, so I am told. In addition, the lifestyle of an opera singer is not always conducive to exercise and proper nutrition. One need only be reminded of Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest tenors of all time, who struggled for many years with a serious weight problem. Although Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, whom I can’t wait to see as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, in a couple of weeks, manages to stay in shape by running marathons. Garanča is the exception, though. Long hours in the studio, travels from city to city, meals eaten at erratic times, you get the picture… Physically, many opera singers just seem to let themselves go. On the flip side, if they maintain their vocal training, their voices actually get better with age. Netrebko’s voice has never been better than it is now. Some connoisseurs claim that after she bore her son, Tiago, Anna’s voice became stronger and “fruitier”. Indeed, she was in perfect form in this performance, with her voice ranging seamlessly from the “high parts” in Act I, to the lower registers in Act III. I’ll say more on those low notes later…
And speaking of physicality… On the male side of the ledger, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei is a lot older than the “26 years” Onegin laments as his advanced age in Act III. “So many years have flown by, ” Evgeny mourns while roaming restlessly the ballroom of the Gremin mansion. The audience chuckles. Of course, in Pushkin’s time, you were an old codger by the age of 30! Mattei is in his 50’s now, but in his physical appearance and mannerisms, I swear that he is exactly the way I always pictured Onegin, just subtract 30 years in your mind.
And speaking of old men, I couldn’t get enough of Štefan Kocán, the glorious Slovak bass who sang the role of General (Prince) Gremin. Kocán doesn’t exactly fit the physical description of Pushkin’s character, either. Pushkin describes Tatiana’s husband as a “fat general” («Кто? толстый этот генерал?» Tatiana whispers in disbelief, when her future hubby is pointed out to her), whereas Kocán is not fat at all, he is wiry, not to mention younger than Mattei — Kocán is only 44!
Tchaikovsky gives General Gremin one and only one job to perform: To sing his show-stopping aria “Любви все возрасты покорны” (“All Ages Are Susceptible to Love”), in which the uxorious “fat old general” belts out his love for Tatiana Larina. The bass gets no second chance: he either lives or dies on stage, depending on his rendering of this one piece. And one of the nice things about watching opera in a version recorded for the movie theater, is that you get camera angles and close-ups of the singers. One could see Kocán up close, the beads of sweat on his brow, his lips, his teeth, his larynx, his glottis, as his years and decades of solid training guided him through this show-stopper. With virtuosity nailing those treacherous low notes of the final “молодость” (“Molodost” – “youth”) as the aria faded away, one could see a smile break out on the singer’s face. He knew that he had stuck his landing. After a too-lengthy (possibly stunned) pause, the audience suddenly erupted in wild applause and shouts of “Bravo!”
Alas, I could not find on youtube a video of Kocán singing this aria. I did find this one for you, Dear Readers, featuring legendary Russian bass-baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky. The entire aria takes around 6 minutes to get through, this youtube version has been edited to give us only the “highlights” – ha ha! But be sure to listen, at 3:23 minutes in, as Hvorostovsky nails those low notes – there is nothing more glorious in this world than a great baritone!
The aria, by the way, is all Tchaikovsky. In Pushkin’s poem the General has very little to say, he just follows his wife around like an accessory. Although Tchaikovsky did use the first line of (Chapter 8, verse XXIX), which is just the poet’s own musings and not the soliloquy of Tatiana’s husband, and which actually contradicts the point made by Gremin in the opera. Namely, Pushkin is just making a trivial point about love being more fervid to youth:
Но юным, девственным сердцам
Ее порывы благотворны,
Как бури вешние полям:
В дожде страстей они свежеют,
И обновляются, и зреют —
И жизнь могущая дает
И пышный цвет и сладкий плод.
whereas Tchaikovsky is making a more mature point, namely, that even an elderly old dog such as General Gremin, with his grey head and battle scars, is capable of falling in love. Preferably with a younger trophy wife. And when he hammers in this point, it’s almost like he is warning the newcomer Onegin: “Stay away from my wife, you young whippersnapper!”
So, what does sociopath Onegin do? He attempts to break Gremin’s heart by stealing his wife. At the first available opportunity, Onegin writes a love letter to Tatiana and demands to see her in private. After she agrees, reluctantly, to the tête-à-tête, he begs her to run away with him. Damn the consequences! Tatiana rightfully refuses: “I still love you,” she admits to Onegin [why??], “but I will remain faithful to my husband.”
Onegin = Chatsky?
Earlier I mentioned Pushkin’s homages to Griboedov, and that it is more than fair to compare the character of Onegin with Grib’s hero, Chatsky. Pushkin himself makes a direct comparison when he says of Onegin’s return to St. Petersburg:
Он возвратился и попал,
Как Чацкий, с корабля на бал.
(“He returned [from exile] and went, like Chatsky, directly from the ship to the ball.”)
In his operatic version, Tchaikovsky puts these words into Onegin’s own mouth, when asked, in the Gremin ballroom, how long he has been back in the capital. Unfortunately, the English subtitles on the screen did not translate this quote in full, omitting the words “like Chatsky”. I guess that’s okay — if you’re Russian, you’ll hear the words and understand them; if you’re not Russian, then you probably wouldn’t know who Chatsky is, anyhow.
Of course, in reality, Onegin is nothing like Chatsky. Both men are cynical Freemasons, but Chatsky at least had some principles, he would not have gone near Sonia had he known that she was in love with another man; nor would he have attempted to seduce her away from her husband, were she married already.
Nor is Tatiana anything like Sonia: Sonia is just an empty-headed teenager, filled with unexplained venom; whereas Tatiana is a serious intellectual, not having a mean bone in her body, a person who thinks everything through carefully.
“Loved One Man, Married Another”
Which raises the issue of Russian women in general, and whether Pushkin’s poem is “feminist” in its political slant. Feminism being a loaded word nowadays; but in a sense most of Russian literature is about the “woman question”. And Grand Opera, as an art form, is also mostly about women, about their loves, their passions, and their sufferings, set against the background of epic events.
Pushkin’s poem has rightfully been called an “encyclopedia of Russian society” of its time, and Pushkin, while focusing mostly on the Angst of the landowning class, from time to time gives us a glimpse into the lives of the other 98% of the Russian population. Pushkin/Tchaikovsky hand a nice jam to Tatiana’s Nanny who, for all intents and purposes, is a house slave, not unlike Scarlett O’Hara’s “Mammy” only with white skin:
В эти лета
Мы не слыхали про любовь;
А то бы согнала со света
Меня покойница свекровь. —
«Да как же ты венчалась, няня?»
— Так, видно, бог велел. Мой Ваня
Моложе был меня, мой свет,
А было мне тринадцать лет.
Недели две ходила сваха
К моей родне, и наконец
Благословил меня отец.
Я горько плакала со страха,
Мне с плачем косу расплели
Да с пеньем в церковь повели.
(“In those days we never heard about love. My deceased mother-in-law would have driven me off the face of the earth, if she had been able to…. It was God’s will that I be married. My Vanya was younger than me, and I was only 13 at the time! For two weeks the matchmaker came to my family, and my father finally gave his blessing. I wept bitterly from fear. They unbraided my hair and led me, singing, to the church…”)
Some quick metrics: Of the 4 major female characters in the story, only one (=Olga) is to marry for love (putatively). Nanny was forced to marry as a girl, but ended up loving her husband Vanya anyhow, so she was lucky. Mrs. Larina (sung by Elena Zaremba) loved one man, as she narrates to Tatiana, but married another (=Tatiana’s dad), yet still found happiness in domesticity and the routines of daily life. Tatiana followed the path of her mom, falling in love with Eugene Onegin, but marrying General Gremin instead. Zaremba herself pointed out this irony, during one of the intermissions, in her interview with the show’s lovely and vivacious hostess, Renée Fleming.
Which brings us back to the final mystery: Does Tatiana truly love Onegin by the end of the story? All of us can remember teenage crushes which didn’t survive the light of day; if we saw that person now, we would duck our heads and cross to the other side of the street. And yet, in her final rebuff to Onegin, Tatiana reiterates that she does indeed still love him. Is Tanya tossing Eugene a bone to keep him on a leash? Or just sticking it to him, like, twisting in the knife? You know what they say about a woman scorned — she will never forgive! God knows, an entire student dissertation could be written on this theme (and probably has). For what it’s worth: I believe that Tatiana, while enjoying her brief moment of revenge, would not have said something like that if she didn’t mean it. Hence, we should take her words at face value. Her love was real, but now it’s literally too late to do anything about it. Both parties must accept reality and move on.
During her intermission-interview, Anna Netrebko confided to Fleming that she finds the third act the toughest to sing, because it’s in the lower part of the soprano register. (And she herself is more comfortable with the higher notes.) This is where Netrebko’s training and her “fruitier” voice served her well. But why did Tchaikovsky write all these low notes for Act III? I already mentioned General Gremin sinking to the growly end of the register while pronouncing the word molodost – which means “youth”. Normally one would associate “youth” with high notes. Well, it’s the contrast, see: Everybody is older and more mature now. Those earlier times, with Lensky — Lensky was young, and a high tenor, and now he’s dead. And now everybody is either a baritone, a bass-baritone, or approaching a mezzo-soprano. This is what happens to everybody with age, and the passing of time.
With or without a giant clock on the wall to remind us of our past unrequited loves, all those terrible mistakes we have made, and the general futility of our wishes and hopes…