‘Heaven sends us habit in place of happiness,’ declares a mother trying to advise her headstrong daughters in warm, rich mezzo-soprano tones in the first scene of the first act of Tchaikovsky’s operatic rendering of Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin. The utterance of this statement can, of course, mean only one thing: At least one principal character will do his/her best to disprove the maternal figure’s rather cynical nugget of wisdom on the topic of everlasting happiness. As this is an opera, one may charitably assume that the experiment won’t have an entirely pleasing outcome.
This revival of Deborah Warner’s original 2013/2014 production by the Metropolitan Opera (conducted by Robin Ticciati) makes clever use of animated backdrops to transport the audience to 19th century Imperial Russia, with its bleak, snowy landscapes and opulent palaces. The period-appropriate costumes add to the magic without ever seeming clunky or over-the-top, and the staging, including a sprinkling of Russian folk ballet, allows the audience to enter the world of lovelorn Tatyana (Anna Netrebko) and arrogant Eugene Onegin (Peter Mattei) from their very first meeting, where, naturally, sparks fly.
Tatyana decides she simply must act on her newly-kindled feelings, and sends Onegin a letter declaring her love. Netrebko receives a well-deserved round of raucous cheers and applause after her sensitive performance of the letter scene, in which she exclaims, ‘Let me perish, but first, let me summon, in dazzling hope, bliss as yet unknown…’ in an effortlessly moving and technically perfect cascade of descending intervals. (Those intricate, low vowels won’t trip up this native Russian.) Later on, Tatyana’s anguish and doubt are sensitively expressed by Netrebko in the slow, legato passage where Tatyana decries having obeyed her ‘burning soul’.
Mattei commands the stage from his first notes. This is not surprising, as he certainly possesses the solid baritone required for the title role in this opera. Onegin’s aloof, blasé character fits Mattei like a tailored winter coat, one the Swede wears so well that he manages to drawl his way lazily through his character’s rebuff of Tatyana’s advances. When Onegin sings to the sensitive Tatyana that he loves her ‘with a brother’s love’, the entire house must surely feel the gut-punch courtesy of Mattei’s strong yet off-hand delivery.
The titular character’s disregard for the feelings of others inevitably leads to serious discord. In Act II, his friend Lenski (Alexey Dolgov), challenges him to a duel after Onegin tries (and clearly succeeds) to make Lenski jealous by dancing with the latter’s fiancée, Olga (Tatyana’s sister, sung by Elena Maximova). The ensuing argument between the betrothed couple plays out dramatically. If the idea that two lovers could have a fiery tiff based on nothing more than a misunderstanding over a few dances at a country party seems ludicrous to you, my answer would be that you’re not wrong (although I’d definitely recommend you stay away from most 90s rom-coms). Mercifully, Dolgov and Maximova’s superior singing, coupled with staging that manages to sustain the tension throughout, makes this scene more than watchable. Dolgov sings his aria about his lost golden days of spring with real sensitivity and longing, and displays great dynamic capability throughout.
All the preceding intrigue sets the opera up for an explosive final act, in which a repentant Onegin meets the woman he’d scorned five years before. Tatyana is no longer an inconsequential young country miss, and Onegin realises his earlier mistake after Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s new husband, sings of his deep love for her. (Štefan Kocán lends his astonishing bass to the role of the prince, and delivers half of the famous aria seated! The result is one of the highlights of this performance.)
No matter your feelings towards the foolish Onegin, his passionate approach in the second scene of Act III will stir something in you if you’ve ever been hopelessly infatuated with someone. The sublime harmony resulting from Mattei and Netrebko’s mournful ‘Happiness was within our reach’ is enough to move even the most unromantic soul to tears.
Beyond the miraculous meeting of voices the audience is treated to in this production, this Live in HD recording also showcases some of the backstage machinations during scene-changes, where stage-hands are seen scurrying frantically to make sure every prop and set piece is in place before the curtain rises. Renée Fleming also does a remarkable job conducting interviews with the principal cast and other notable figures during the two intervals, and the camera allows the cinema audience to watch the orchestra and conductor closely as they perform Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score.
Tatyana may have spared herself a fair bit of heartache if she’d heeded her mother’s warnings regarding the nature of happiness, but the world would have been a few soul-rending arias poorer. The heart wants what it wants, and nowhere is the fallout from unrequited love and ill-considered dealings portrayed as vividly as in this production by its stars Netrebko, Mattei, and the rest of the superior cast.
Eugene Onegin is part of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Live in HD season, and will be screened at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront from the 20th to the 31st of May. Book your tickets at www.sterkinekor.co.za.