Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The MET Opens With New Production of Eugene Onegin

Opening Night of the MET almost turned into a circus last night as a group of protesters entered the house, and started shouting "Putin, end your war on Russian gays!" as the house lights dimmed before the beginning of the new production of Eugene Onegin. The ruckus was a continuation of the small, but lively protest that had gone on outside, on the sidewalk facing Lincoln Center's Plaza. Eventually, the protesters were chased out of the house minutes later, and the opera went on without any more interruptions -- well, more or less. About a quarter of the rich, beautifully dressed patrons, who paid top dollar to sit in the orchestra section, and who might not have been familiar with this great Tchaikovsky work thought that Act I had finished after the great Letter Scene, and got up and went out to enjoy the intermission. Unfortunately, when they heard the music playing most wanted to come back, and unfortunately the ushers must have been pressured to allow them back in the house; an action that added noise and commotion during the scene when Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecien) rejects Tatiana (Anna Netrebko) after he receives her love letter. In many ways, all these shenanigans were an extension of the messy, rehearsal process that this production had prior to yesterday's uneven premiere. Deborah Warner bowed out of the production as a result of having to undergo surgery and Fiona Shaw took over despite the fact that she was directing another production in Europe. Ms. Shaw has not been seen in the house for weeks, and she was not there last night.

This new staging replaces the 1997 Robert Carsen beauty of a production that took place on a mostly bare set, and created beautiful minimalist stage pictures, mostly with lights that created a warm palette. This production, by comparison, is positively cluttered. The sets by Tom Pye are handsome and realistic, but ultimately turn out to be boring and anti-dramatic. The colonnade that dominates the last act looks impressive as a quasi-symbol of authority over passion, but their placement restricts the action onstage. The costumes by Chloe Obolensky are authentic to the 19th century, and probably the most successful aspect of the new staging.

The Peter Gelb era has presented some very successful opening night stagings, as well as some infamous duds. I can still hear the boos from the Tosca opening night a few years ago. This production of Eugene Onegin, as well as last year's L'Elisir d'Amore opening night, are throwback to a more conservative Metropolitan Opera. It just could be that Mr. Gelb is tired of opening the house to a chorus of boos from the New York conservative cognoscenti.

The cast looked and sounded glorious. Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Kwiecien make a handsome unrequited love couple. Tenor Piotr Beczala was a fabulous Vladimir Lenski, the starry-eyed, sensitive poet who longs for Tatiana's sister Olga, and who challenges his best friend Onegin to a duel when he feels that the aloof aristocrat is humiliating him publicly by flirting with his love. Down in the pit Valery Gergiev led a vigorous, pensive performance.

This new production may not be the most beautiful jewel on the MET's crown, but it's shiny luster seems to have won over the first night's audience. It needs a superb cast to make it come to life. Fortunately, these days a more than winning cast is setting Lincoln Center's nights on fire. Don't miss them!

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