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Two Letters -- Two Tragedies

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
01/30/2009 -  & February 2, 5, 9, 14, 18, 21, 2009
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Karita Mattila (Tatiana), Thomas Hampson (Eugene Onegin), Piotr Beczala (Lenski), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga), Sergei Aleksashkin (Gremin), Wendy White (Madame Larina), Jane Shaulis (Filippyevna), Tony Stevenson (Monsieur Triquet), Richard Bernstein (Zaretski), David Crawford (Captain), Raymond Aparentado (Offstage Tenor), Linda Gelinas and Sam Meredith (Solo Dancers)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek (Conductor)
Robert Carsen (Production), Michael Levine (Set and Costume Design), Jean Kalman (Lighting Design), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer)

K. Mattila (Tatiana) (© Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera)

In May 1877, Tchaikovsky, a thirty-seven year old bachelor, was desperate to marry, so as to make his elderly father happy, and put an end to persistent rumors about his sexuality. He was hard at work on his Fourth Symphony when he received a letter from Antonina Milyukova, a young woman he did not even know. She told him that she had been in love with him for years. In reply, he advised her to control her feelings. But she could not. She wrote again, this time threatening suicide. He agreed to meet her, confiding in a friend that fate (and, clearly, the power of social convention) was driving him toward her. At their second meeting, he said he did not love her, but agreed to be her husband. Their marriage in July was a disastrous mistake.

Just before his ill-fated encounter with his future wife, Tchaikovsky had been a guest at dinner with friends, where he had asked for ideas about a suitable text for an opera. Someone suggested the extremely popular novel in verse, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky decided to adapt the novel, but refused to term his new work an opera, Instead, he would call it Eugene Onegin: Lyric Scenes in Three Acts and Seven Scenes.

He radically simplified the novel and focused on three characters – Tatiana, Lenski, and Onegin. Tatiana, an introspective young woman, who knows about life only through her books, and her sister, Olga, a more extroverted girl, live on an estate in the country. One day, Olga’s suitor, Lenski, himself a poet and a dreamer, brings his friend, Eugene Onegin, to meet the family. Tatiana immediately falls in love with Onegin, believing that he is destined for her. She writes a letter to him confessing her love. Onegin returns the next day. He rejects Tatiana, scolding her for writing so frankly to a stranger.

Time passes. At a party, the bored Onegin flirts with Olga. Lenski becomes jealous, tempers flair, and Lenski challenges Onegin to a duel. Lenski, resigned to his fate, is then shot dead. Onegin leaves Russia to travel abroad. Several years later, Tatiana and Onegin meet again. She is married to Prince Gremin, an older man, who is deeply in love with her. Onegin, now as infatuated with her as she had been with him, tells Tatiana that he loves her. She waivers, and confesses that she still loves him, but resolves to remain with her husband. Realizing that he has thrown away his chance of happiness, Onegin cries out in despair: “Disgrace! Anguish! How pitiable is my fate?”

Many years later, Tchaikovsky told a friend how Eugene Onegin was linked to his ill-fated marriage. He had begun work on the opera with the letter-writing scene and completely identified with Tatiana, feeling deeply the pain of her rejection by the cold and unresponsive Onegin. It was at this fateful moment, that he received the second letter from the besotted Antonina, threatening to kill herself if he did not respond favorably. Because he felt that his behavior had been even worse than Onegin’s, he agreed to meet her. Marriage and misery followed.

In contrast, his new work was a source of joy and excitement. Tchaikovsky was adamant that it be performed by young singers from the Conservatoire. The premiere took place at the Maly Theatre with Nicholay Rubenstein as producer and conductor. The reception was enthusiastic among the press, but there were complaints that Tchaikovsky had dared to alter a much loved Russian literary work. It was not until 1884, that Eugene Onegin was produced at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg. The Metropolitan Opera premiere took place in 1920, with a performance in Italian. Subsequently there were productions in English in 1957 and in Russian in 1977. The current production had its premiere in 1997.

This season, the focus of anticipation was on the debut of Karita Mattila as Tatiana. Some months ago, she enjoyed an enormous success in Richard Strauss’s Salome (read here). Mattila is a marvelous singer and actress. And she used both abilities to great effect in her portrayal of Tatiana as the innocent, hopelessly romantic young girl of act one and the elegant, self-possessed mature woman of act three. In the letter scene, she captured the rush of emotion, excitement, and fear of first love with her shimmering burnished vocal color and unstinting lyricism.

Piotr Beczala, as Lenski, was marvelous, with his beautiful ringing tone, fine legato line and just the right touch of vibrato. He conveyed the passion and the foolish romanticism of a Byronic lover. He was as much a victim of his literary imagination as Tatiana was a victim of hers.

Ekaterina Semenchuck as Olga, sang with the same lovely dark hued tone that she demonstrated as Pauline, in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades earlier this season. Sergei Aleksashkin, as Prince Gremin, delighted the audience with his wonderful bass voice and deeply moving performance.

The Met Opera Chorus, in their incarnations as peasants and as aristocrats, was, as always, superb. In the second act ballroom scene, they also served an important dramatic function, amplifying the shock and horror of the confrontation between Lenski and Onegin and the inexorable fateful slide toward a duel and death

Portraying Onegin, a man who is bored, disengaged, and devoid of all emotions save self-regard, presents a great challenge. Tatiana does not know him when she falls in love. She merely projects her romantic dreams onto a blank slate. Thomas Hampson was excellent at conveying the cold, inaccessible, and self-involved man of the first two acts. But his transformation in act three was not dramatically convincing. Vocally, he was a disappointment. His voice seemed hoarse, even harsh.

The production by Robert Carsen was stunning and fully in keeping with Tchaikovsky’s poetic conception, his concentration on the emotional life of his characters rather than their actions, and his radical simplification of Pushkin’s story line. The lighting was luminous and delicate, almost impressionistic. The first act set – with its peach walls, bare tree trunks, and a floor carpeted by richly-colored autumn leaves -- was breathtaking. Tatiana’s letter scene took place in a huge open space of deep blue sky, lit by a sliver of a moon. The only props were a brass bed, and a desk with a chair.

The set for the duel was the most evocative of all. The action occurred behind a scrim, with black figures wearing top hats, outlined in silhouette against a pale gray void. The set perfectly embodied the underlying sense that meaningless social conventions ignore and even destroy individuality. The crushing power of fate on hopes and dreams came through musically in the sotto voce duet between Lenski and Onegin, which betrayed a stunned awareness that their situation offered them no way out.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Jirí Belohlávek, did justice to Tchaikovsky’s glorious music and his talents and an orchestrator. They gave full expression to the power and poignancy of the fate motive which is threaded through the opera from the orchestral prelude through Tatiana’s letter scene, Len ski's aria just before he is killed in the duel, and the last scene. In the case of both the characters in Eugene Onegin, and the composer who immortalized them, all are helpless pawns in the hands of fate.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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