Perhaps you’ve seen the promos for Eugene Onegin, coming soon to a movie theater near you. It will be a live high-definition transmission of the February 24 matinee direct from the Metropolitan Opera to some 150 film palaces from L.A. to London, and moviegoers are promised a steamy afternoon—or evening, if they happen to be in the U.K. The “star soprano” with the “sumptuous voice” Renée Fleming sings the role of the love-starved Tatiana for the first time at the Met, and she is “joined by a supremely talented troika of the coarser sex” who “provide the testosterone” in her life. They include “the charismatic and smoldering” Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the “superb tenor” Ramón Vargas, and conductor Valery Gergiev, considered in some quarters as the most mesmerizing personality to emerge from St. Petersburg since Rasputin, whom he vaguely resembles.
My, my. Perhaps the Met took an excessively chaste attitude toward marketing matters in pre–Peter Gelb days, but promoting Eugene Onegin as some sort of post-Soviet porn flick? Of course, the show is bound to look quite different and possibly more suggestive through a camera lens, but even at that, the sex in this opera—or “lyric scenes,” as Tchaikovsky preferred to call his adaptation of Pushkin’s poem—is definitely all inside the characters’ heads. Beyond that, anyone who hopes to luxuriate in a sumptuous Met spectacular à la Zeffirelli is likely to be disappointed by such an austere production. A lot of people hated this Onegin when it was first seen back in 1997, and the revival is likely to start more fights. The whole opera is presented within the confines of three bare walls, each scene sparely but purposefully furnished in period style, with the focus squarely—nay, piercingly—on the characters and how the music illuminates them.
Well, that’s enough for me, as long as the cast is up to the challenge. Actually, this economically decorated stage is often breathtakingly beautiful, if one surrenders to the poetic concept at work. The opera’s key scene, in which Tatiana writes her secret love letter to Onegin, is especially spellbinding: a cloudless night with a fingernail moon hovering over a solitary brass bed, night table, and writing desk, all surrounded by a carpet of autumn leaves through which Tatiana dreamily wanders as her adolescent passion takes full possession of her. Opera does not get more romantic than this, and everything about the scene—Robert Carsen’s lyrical direction, Michael Levine’s exquisitely imagined set, and Jean Kalman’s magical lighting design—is realized to perfection. With a Tatiana who is able to seize the moment, the effect can be powerful and painful.
Fleming often sounds very lovely here, and I hope the cameras are kind to her—like her colleagues, who must all portray characters barely out of their teens, she was ready for her close-up quite some time ago. She mostly avoids those irritating scoops, moans, and scatty sounds that have disfigured her singing of late, and she traces the girl’s development into stately womanhood with quiet grace. Made up to resemble Pushkin but looking more like a pudgy Schubert, Vargas is a lovable Lenski, singing ardently as a young poet should. The main focus, though, is on the title role, and Hvorostovsky’s creamy baritone, easy conversational style, purling legato, and elegant musical manners have seldom sounded more seductive. He also responds completely to Carsen’s view of the character as an empty vessel that gradually fills with a poison of his own brewing before pretty much wrecking everyone’s lives, his own included.
With Gergiev on hand to give the most satisfyingly idiomatic reading of the score within Met memory, this is just about as solid a musical statement of Eugene Onegin as can be hoped for in the here and now. Even if what flashes on the screen next Saturday afternoon doesn’t live up to the X-rated hype, you can always close your eyes, imagine the worst, and listen to some first-rate singing.