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Heartbreak on the Plaza

New York
Lincoln Center Plaza
08/31/2009 -  
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
Renée Fleming (Tatiana), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Eugene Onegin), Ramón Vargas (Lenski), Elena Zaremba (Olga), Sergei Aleksashkin (Gremin), Svetlana Volkova (Madame Larina), Larisa Shevchenko (Filippyevna), John-Paul Fouchécourt (Monsieur Triquet), Richard Bernstein (Zaretski), Keith Miller (Captain), Linda Gelinas and Sam Meredith (Solo Dancers)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Robert Carsen (Production), Michael Levine (Set and Costume Design), Jean Kalman (Lighting Design), Serge Bennathan (Choreographer), Peter McClintock (Stage Director), Brian Large (TV Director)

D. Hvorostovsky & R. Fleming (© Ken Howard)

This summer, the Met revisited Eugene Onegin in a repeat of an HD broadcast originally shown in cinemas in 2007. I have also revisited this production, having seen it (with a different cast and conductor) inside the House in January 2009 (read here).

I have never attended one of the Metropolitan Opera’s live in HD performances, but I have heard reports (domestic and foreign) – all positive. This encore presentation did not take place in a cinema, but in Lincoln Center Plaza. The façade of the Metropolitan Opera House was the backdrop, and the buzz and the bustle of New York City was the inescapable accompaniment. Eugene Onegin was part of the Met’s Summer HD Festival, its end-of-summer gift to the people of New York City. The HD broadcasts, now entering their fourth season, have been extraordinarily successful. In 2007-2008, more than 900,000 attended screenings. The following year, people in 28 countries were able to view the broadcasts. In 2009-2010, the country list will grow beyond 40.

Opera is perhaps the most intense and complex of the arts. So many things happen simultaneously. In the opera house, we can choose where to focus our attention. With opera on film, that choice is made for us. However, such narrowed options are a small price to pay for the opportunity to watch and listen to great operas and great singers from afar. Other houses have emulated the Met, and broadcasts are being supplemented by live streaming on the internet.

Directorial skills vary greatly, and the viewpoint on the cinema screen or through the computer monitor is not always the most felicitous. (The recent transmission of Don Giovanni from Verbier, with a cast to die for, including Bryn Terfel singing his last Giovanni, comes to mind. While the singing was superb, the camera work was uneven and often frustrating.) In contrast, the Met’s HD director, Brian Large, did a superb job. His skill added psychological resonance and poignancy to the tale of the ill-fated and ill-timed love between Tatiana and Onegin. As a besotted young girl, she falls in love with him, but he coolly rejects her. Later, after she has married, he realizes that he loves her. But it’s too late.

No opera production could be better suited to film than this one. The sets were radically simplified and stylized. Thus, the choices of where we would like to look were unusually constrained. We lost very little by relinquishing our autonomy to the camera, and we gained so much from the camera’s ability to home in on the faces and gestures of brilliant singing actors (particularly in the case of Fleming and Hvorostovsky, and particularly in their final scene). The close-up’s added richness, depth, and nuance to their portrayals. Filmed opera also allows us to see the conductor and orchestra. In this production, watching Gergiev, who seemed to live and breath the music, was fascinating.

Of course, there are trade-off’s in everything. What was lost in the filmed version was one extraordinary visual image that has remained with me – the panoramic view of the duel. The characters, mostly in dark silhouette, appeared against a bleak winter sky that was illuminated at the end by the sun slowly rising over Lenski’s lifeless body. This scene was beautifully filmed, but it did lose some of its visual and psychological power. For once, we were simply brought too close to the characters.

Renée Fleming as Tatiana gave a magnificent performance, as finely calibrated dramatically as it was vocally. She was deeply affecting in the letter scene, as the naïve young girl besotted with Onegin. Later in the opera, she was utterly convincing in her portrayal of the mature woman who still loves him, but puts her marriage vows and moral duty above her own desires. Her anguished dismissal of Onegin had great dramatic power. Vocally, she was stunning. In this, her first Russian role at the Met, Ms. Fleming sang with a creamy rich tone and impeccable vocal technique.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky is surely the Onegin of our age. In superb vocal form, he sang with a burnished tone, exquisite lyricism, and a marvelous legato line. With his legendary breath control, he spun out phrases that seemed to go on and on. His characterization was exactly right. The Onegin of act one is a bored and narcissistic aristocrat who dismisses Tatiana’s protestations of love as manifestations of inadequate self-control. Hvorostovsky embodied the character vocally, dramatically, and even physically, with telling gestures, poses, and facial expressions. Onegin’s boredom leads him to flirt with Tatiana’s sister, Olga -- a characteristically thoughtless gesture that results in the duel and the death of Lenski, Onegin’s best friend and Olga’s ardent suitor. In the final act, Hvorostovsky’s acting ability was revealed in full measure by the close-up’s of his face. Everything registered – his shock at seeing Tatiana again, his attraction to her, the loss of his customary self-containment.

After she leaves with her husband, the realization of his past folly comes crashing down on Onegin. We heard it and we saw it as Hvorostovsky launched into a lyrical melody; Onegin has become as besotted with Tatiana as she had been with him. The final scene in which he declares his love but is rejected was brilliantly realized. The characters are in the grip of psychological and social forces they cannot control. Tatiana has no choice; she must renounce her love for Onegin and remain with her husband. Onegin is left utterly bereft. Gergiev and the Met orchestra were powerful yet subtle partners for the singers. The emotional impact was devastating.

Ramón Vargas, as a cuddly and almost cherubic Lenski, sang with beautiful tone and deep feeling, in a portrayal of utter poignancy. His sweet nature was almost palpable. It is very hard to shine brightly when singing with Fleming and Hvorostovsky but Vargas did.

The rest of the cast, all Russians, acquitted themselves well. Elena Zaremba’s dark mezzo was beautifully colored, but she looked far too old to be Tatiana’s younger sister. She also looked older than her mother! While such incongruities would hardly be noticeable at a performance in the opera house, they can be rather distracting on film.

The Met Chorus in their varying incarnations was, as always, superb. The Met Orchestra, under Gergiev, gave a magnificent rendering of Tchaikovsky’s exquisite score. There was the sweep, drama, and passion, but also great delicacy and luminosity, especially in the playing of the winds.

This was truly one of the best performances of an opera I have ever seen. It is available on DVD. Tickets for the nine operas in the fourth season of the Met’s HD broadcasts go on sale in September. They often sell out rather quickly. Especially for those of you who do not have the Met on your doorstep, these broadcasts are an extraordinary opportunity to experience opera at its best.

The Metropolitan Opera in HD

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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