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Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin / Netrebko, Beczala, Gergiev, Metropolitan Opera [blu-ray]

Release Date: 03/11/2014 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 1994259  
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Anna NetrebkoPiotr BeczalaMariusz Kwiecien
Conductor:  Valery Gergiev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera ChorusMetropolitan Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Blu-ray Video:  $39.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This Blu-ray Disc is only playable on Blu-ray Disc players and not compatible with standard DVD players. Also available on standard DVD

TCHAIKOVSKY Evgeny Onegin & Valery Gergiev, cond; Anna Netrebko ( Tatiana ); Oksana Volkova ( Olga ); Elena Zaremba ( Larina ); Larisa Diadkova ( Filipevna ); Piotr Beczala Read more ( Lensky ); Mariusz Kwiecien ( Onegin ); Aleksei Tanovitsky ( Gremin ); Metropolitan Op Ch & O DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0735115 (Blu-ray 164:00 + 11:00) Live: New York 10/5/2013

& Backstage at the Met with Mariusz Kwiecien, Anna Netrebko, and others

In reviewing Kasper Holten’s Covent Garden production of Onegin (37:5), I briefly discussed a Metropolitan Opera staging by Robert Carsen (Decca), which I recommended as a Blu-ray version in preference not only to the Holten production but to various other Regietheater misadventures with this opera. (My overall recommendation for an Onegin video remained the older DVD-only Bolshoi and Kirov productions, on TDK and Kultur respectively.) My reservations about that Met production related principally to its unsatisfying sets, consisting of bare walls plus a few pieces of furniture. Now that recording faces competition from this new Met staging, which replaced the Carsen version last season after a rather short run for the latter. The new production was designed by Deborah Warner but directed by Fiona Shaw after Warner had to bow out to undergo surgery. Reviewing the opening-night performance of September 24, 2013, the chief New York Times critic, Anthony Tommasini, panned the production as “drab” and “muddled,” with some “untidiness” in the musical execution. By the time this video was recorded, on October 5, the untidiness seems to have vanished, and I must point out that Tommasini seldom approves of any staging that doesn’t employ Regietheater methods, so a relatively traditional production like this one would be unlikely to please him.

In the Warner production, the setting has been subjected to a mild updating, from the 1820s to the 1870s, the period when the opera was written. This change is to my mind pointless, but preferable to moving the action to the 21st century, the Soviet era, or some such Regietheater foolishness. Much of Tommasini’s objection seems to relate to the unitary set for the first act, and here some reservations are in order. According to the stage directions in the libretto, the first scene is supposed to take place in the garden of the Larin estate, the second in Tatiana’s bedroom, and the third, where Tatiana receives Onegin’s rejection of her declaration of love, in another part of the garden. Instead, all three scenes are set in a kind of enclosed terrace or sunroom that looks out onto a wooded grove. The remaining sets, with one exception, are more conventional, i.e. in accordance with the libretto. The interior of the Larin house is realistically depicted for the ball scene. The duel takes place in a desolate winter landscape, more evocative than Carsen’s completely empty stage, and the traditional majestic columns are in place for the Gremin ball in the third act. The final scene, however, takes place not in the drawing room of the Gremin mansion, as specified by the libretto, but outside, in the exterior colonnade of the house.

For the most part, the production recounts the story in a straightforward, dramatically effective manner, without flashback, doubles, or other Regietheater devices. The pivotal episodes, such as Tatiana’s letter scene, the confrontation between Onegin and Lensky in act II, the duel scene, and the final scene between Onegin and Tatiana, are powerfully sung and acted. A discrepancy between text and action occurs at the beginning of the second scene, where Filipevna’s first words are, “Well, I’ve been chattering too much” (“Nu, zaboltalas’ ia”), but throughout the lengthy prelude she has been puttering around the stage without saying anything. (Most productions have the curtain down during this prelude.) Although the staging sets this scene in a public area of the house rather than Tatiana’s bedroom, she is partially disrobed, as though preparing for bed. Another discordant note occurs when Onegin steals a kiss from Tatiana after rejecting her, provocative behavior that seems at odds with the advice he has just given her to exercise greater self-control, and with Tatiana’s later acknowledgment that in this situation he “acted correctly” toward her. He continues to be provocatively forward with her at the beginning of the Larin ball, which at least seems to justify for once the gossip that so annoys him and triggers his ill-fated flirtation with Olga. For some reason, many directors feel compelled to caricature the Frenchman Triquet’s serenade to Tatiana, which is unfortunate, since the piece can be quite beautiful and appealing when sung with simplicity and tasteful expressivity. Here Triquet has an injured leg, wears a brace, walks with a limp, behaves in a clownish manner, and delivers his couplet in a foppish and exaggerated fashion.

The duel scene receives a straightforward, gimmick-free presentation, far preferable to the clutter imposed by Holten or by Stefan Herheim, in his ludicrous production for the Netherlands Opera (Opus Arte). Before initiating the duel, Onegin and Lensky shake hands and embrace, and after Lensky is killed Onegin rushes toward him and cradles the corpse in his arms, an approach which to my mind underlines their ambivalence toward the disastrous undertaking into which they have trapped themselves and Onegin’s grief and regret at its outcome far more effectively and movingly than Holten’s flashback technique. But it is odd that the duel is fought with rifles rather than pistols. I acknowledge being no expert on duels, but I have never heard of one being conducted with rifles; as Lensky’s second Zaretsky remarks, there are rules, and we can’t “let a man to be butchered any old way.” At the Gremin ball, there is little dancing during the Polonaise, and what there is takes place downstage, beyond the columns. The ballet troupe gets its chance during the Ecossaise. Onegin here appears to be an outcast, ignored or shunned by those he attempts to greet. Oddly, Gremin directs most of his aria to Tatiana, while he is supposed to be addressing Onegin, who stands some distance away. The repeat of the Ecossaise at the end of the scene is cut in this performance. The final scene is notable for how close Tatiana seems to come to surrendering, allowing Onegin a passionate kiss before she tears herself away. As she retreats into the distance, there is a long silence before the despairing Onegin’s final outcry.

Musically, the performance is excellent. Most of the important roles are taken by Russian singers, which ensures accurate pronunciation and idiomatic delivery of the text. The exceptions are the two Polish singers in principal male roles, but they too seem largely proficient in Russian pronunciation (not a given, since members of non-Russian Slavic nationalities are no more qualified by birth to sing Russian than Italians are to sing French). Anna Netrebko’s portrayal of Tatiana is a powerfully dramatic one, and she has the vocal strength and beauty and variety of tone to bring it off. As always, she is a fine actress, and she conveys the character’s emotions convincingly and movingly in both visual and vocal terms. Her letter scene is a stunning piece of dramatic vocalism. I prefer her performance to the very good ones by Krassimira Stoyanova in the Holten and Herheim productions, and to Renée Fleming’s sometimes mannered and only intermittently effective one in the Carsen version. Mariusz Kwiecien is a persuasive Onegin, projecting in his vocalism the dignity and self-possession the character should have. His singing combines beauty and solidity of tone with sensitive expressivity. His lecture to Tatiana is beautifully sung, and if his physical behavior at this point seems too cocky, that is the fault of the production. He is preferable to Holten’s Simon Keenlyside and especially Herheim’s Bo Skovhus, and is competitive with Carsen’s Dmitri Hvorostovsky. As Lensky, Piotr Beczala deploys a more powerful, heroic voice than is common in this role, rescuing the character from the impression of weakness and petulance that clings to him in many portrayals. Here is a Lensky who moves rather than embarrasses me, and I have no hesitation in declaring him one of the best practitioners of the role in my experience. Unlike some competitors, he is passionate without being saccharine, anguished without being lachrymose, combining beauty and purity of tone with precision and dramatic fervor. His two arias are superbly rendered. I find him clearly superior to Holten’s Pavol Breslik, Herheim’s Andrei Dunaev, and Carsen’s unidiomatic Ramón Vargas. Oksana Volkova is a youthful-sounding Olga, deploying well-focused, steady tone and a strong chest register where it is needed. The veteran Larisa Diadkova is convincing as the nurse Filipevna, conveying an impression of sweetness and gentleness that contrasts with the more robust and forceful characterization of Larisa Shevchenko in the Carsen production. As Larina, Elena Zaremba lacks steadiness of tone but is otherwise authoritative in the role. The one major disappointment in the cast is Aleksei Tanovitsky as Gremin. His fast vibrato and hollow tone deprive his aria of the sonorous majesty it should have. Sergei Aleksashkin, in the earlier Met production, is much better. Conductor Valery Gergiev is in top form, with leadership that is flexible, nuanced, impassioned, and detailed. The famed Met orchestra executes his commands with the expected eloquence and precision, and the chorus displays its customary proficiency.

The stereo sound of this Blu-ray disc is vivid, well defined, wide in dynamic range, and free from harshness or distortion. The voices are very clear and well focused, unhampered by excess reverberation. The balance between voices and orchestra is ideal, allowing for a strong and detailed orchestral presence that never covers the singers. In addition to stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround is offered, but I do not have the equipment to evaluate it. Picture quality is excellent.

Regardless of the reservations noted about certain details, this performance moved me deeply. With the best overall cast and least objectionable staging among the four Blu-ray Onegin performances I’ve seen, this release displaces the previous Met production as my recommendation for a Blu-ray version. In matters of staging, I continue to prefer the old Bolshoi and Kirov productions, of which the latter has a stronger cast and better leadership. But the sound and picture quality are much better in this new release from the Met, and it is compelling as a musical and dramatic experience.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Anna Netrebko (Soprano), Piotr Beczala (Tenor), Mariusz Kwiecien (Baritone)
Conductor:  Valery Gergiev
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877-1878; Russia 

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