The Times called the setting drab, and boy were they right. The first act takes place in what looks like a sun room, done up to resemble a sepia photograph from the 1870’s, the period in which this production is set. Everything and everyone looks drained of color, except for a dancer in a magenta dress, but even that harvest presentation lacked the joy it should have had. That’s a shame, because given the overwhelming – we are Russians and we suffer – theme, we could have really used some color.
The music has different emotional tones, including playfulness, but the libretto – unless something has been lost in the translation – moves from somber to depressing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s why good direction is needed to find the nuance and highlight dramatic tension. Anna Netrebko, star that she is, does bring some underlying passion and sensuality to the famous letter scene, in which her character, Tatiana — a shy, bookish, young woman, pours out her love and longing for the eponymous character in a letter, but even here, Netrebko is not helped by the staging. Why is it set in the same room as the opening act? Since she’s up writing in the middle of the night, wouldn’t she be in her own bedroom? And when her nanny comes in, why are they standing on different sides of the stage? That’s a motif repeated throughout the evening – having singers stand really far apart from each other. Was it meant to show us their emotional distance? If that’s it, it was an awkward and self-conscious means of doing so.
There’s a lot of press about what was going on behind the scenes. Deborah Warner, who’d developed the production, which was first staged by the English National Opera in 2011, was unable to work on it in New York. She sent Fiona Shaw – her collaborator, who had to leave due weeks before the opening to fulfill another commitment. That may explain why the staging seemed so off and awkward, and the lack of dramatic coherence. Each act felt almost like a separate piece, with little sense of how characters got from here to there, and the blocking looked like something out of a high school production.
Singing Onegin, Mariuz Kwiecien was in good voice, but didn’t manage to convey the character’s charisma or glamour. Not having seen or heard the opera before, I’m not sure how much was due to the production or underwriting in the libretto, but the staging certainly didn’t help. At a pause, the better half, who’d read the novel (in Russian) in college, was trying to explain who Onegin was to me. He’s prideful and cold. He thinks he was meant for better things. But how the hell could anyone think he’d do better than Anna Netrebko?
Pytor Bezcala shined as Onegin’s friend, Lenski, the suitor of Olga, Tatiana’s sister. Bezcala who is (unbelievably) in his late forties. brings a boyish charm and innocence even to dark roles like Faust and the Duke in Rigoletto. Lenski’s youth and impulsivity is a role that plays to his strengths as both an actor and singer. The highlight of the evening was the aria he sings while waiting for Onegin to arrive on the morning that these two now former friends are to duel. It’s a beautiful piece filled with nostalgia and loss. Bezcala’s rendition was perfection, and arguably the highlight of the night.
Oskana Volkova as Olga, has a smoky mezzo, and is well-matched with Bezcala (with whom she sang as Maddalena in last year’s Vegas Rigoletto). Dramatically and vocally she managed to suggest the depth of her character, who like Onegin may have been underwritten. (One of the first things I asked the better-half after it was over was whether or not in the novel we find out more about Olga’s fate.)
If the stage first came to life during the duel, then the third act, which begins in the palace of Prince and Princess Gremin was where it finally seemed to gel. Alexei Tanovitski brings emotional as well as vocal depth to the small role of Prince Gremin. At last the stage has some vibrant color , and for the first time I “got” who Onegin was. It’s a scene filled with regret and realization, and it would have made a much more effective opening.
With or without music, translating a novel to the stage requires innovation to preserve the emotional essence of the story and create dramatic tension. An audience can’t see or hear “thought” or description – only emotion and action. Changing the linearity would have helped. If the production had opened with the ballroom scene at the palace, we would have gotten what we needed to know about Onegin. We would have even had some sympathy for him. The action could have then gone back to a shortened and less busy first act and continued, up to the last scene, when Onegin meets a now married Tatiana, no longer the shy country girl whom he’d rejected, but now a sophisticated and married princess. Onegin’s final comeuppance would have had much more emotional punch.