Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
Eugene Onegin
Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo, GornPod, FengShui

Conductor: Jiri Belohlávek

Libretto: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Konstantin Shilovsky

Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Production: Robert Carsen

Set & Costumes: Michael Levine

Lighting: Jean Kalman

Choreography: Serge Bennathan

Starring: Thomas Hampson (Eugene Onegin); Karita Mattila (Tatiana Larin); Piotr Beczala (Vladimir Lenski); Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga Larin); Sergei Aleksashkin (Prince Gremin)

Rating: Superstar Destroyer — intimidates and pleases! Or maybe it's a Death Star after all? It was wondrously awesome!!

Tchaikovsky is known as a composer for the ballet Swan Lake, but his real romantic masterpiece is arguably Eugene Onegin, based on a poem by Alexandre Pushkin. It's not a narrative in the usual sense, and he called it "lyric scenes." Perhaps, since the poem is so well known in Russia, he felt there was no need for much exposition. But even those not familiar with Pushkin will understand the emotions of unrequited love, too late.

For Star Wars fans, Pushkin is significant because George Lucas pilfered a poem for Anakin's declaration of love to Padmé in Attack of the Clones. Indeed, the unrequited love themes are similar to Onegin, but Tchaikovsky's interpretations and re-writes are miles better than Lucas's ham-handed efforts.

The story is simple and the stuff of angst: a young daughter of a country aristocrat falls in love with a worldly St. Petersburg nobleman. He — depending on the production — spurns her cruelly, or at least, not unkindly. Things happen, they meet again, and this time, she is the wife of a St. Petersburg prince, and he's now in love with her. Too late, too bad ...

The development of a jaded and ennui-imbued nobleman who transforms into a love-besotted, wiser man counters the innocent girl turned a sophisticated princess. They cross paths several times, but their chance at happiness is past, leaving both miserable yet honorable. Very romantic, very dramatic, and almost gothic in feel.

History tells us that the creation of this opera paralleled and contrasted the life of Tchaikovsky himself. He had resolved to marry, and had met a young music student, who had sent him a letter revealing her love for him. After several months of letters, Tchaikovsky proposed; perhaps he wanted to be sure he was not Onegin? But after living with his new wife for less than a month's worth of days, his marriage dissolved. Would it have been better to have been Onegin, after all? Or perhaps Tchaikovsky was trying to redeem his marriage?

The Metropolitan Opera's staging and settings were originally designed for the 1997 opera season. It's minimalist and spare, but not at all "cheap." It's solid and well designed — even clever — with the purpose of focusing the attention on the action and singing and the emotions. We saw this particular production in its opening season, though it was criticized, not for its lack of ornamentation, but that it made the voices suffer. Often, you couldn't hear the singers; the sets seems to bounce the voices around in unpredictable ways. Thankfully, in this production in 2009, all of that seems to have been fixed, and voices and enunciation came through crystal clear. The setting is still fresh and targetted, and a joy to behold compared to creaky old-looking, oversized painted and plastered sets.

In particular, the transitions between scenes, and the starts and ends of each scene is crisp and well defined. The whole stage is utilized. The opening is shown behind a scrim, Onegin in a chair center stage, reading a letter, red-hued autumn leaves falling like snow, and realistically, onto the already leaf-strewn set. A spotlight focuses on the man center-stage, then fades. The curtain rises to a quartet of women looking forward to the end of a harvest in a country estate. There are silhouettes of birch-like trees and lots of lots of leaves. It's gorgeous and perfect.

Our favorite transition was the otherwise dull Polonaise; rather than playing it while the sets were being changed, the post-duel killing saw Onegine being stripped of his outdoorwear and into a tuxedo, fit for a ball. Footment came in rigidly to place uniform chairs around the perimeter of the stage to define the ballroom, in contrast to the mix-and-match rickety chairs in a too-small perimeter for the party at the Larin home. It made this otherwise "filler" piece of music a work of genius.

The lighting was likewise both subtle and in-your-face, but you don't notice it, in that it's not obtrusive. Harsh lighting is used both during Onegin's lecture to the young Tatjana, and then when she rejects him. We think this is a reflection of their mental states, which leads to interesting suppositions.

Toward helping audience members save having to read the Playbill before he Met has a nice feature — at every seat, there is a LED display with translations of the singing, so never again do you have to wonder what they're singing about. Your eyes can dip up and down from action to subtitles ... though the action in this play was so intense and interesting that we often found ourselves forgetting to read along!

The irony of opera has always been that the big roles require maturity — people need time to grow into their voices. Forcing them too early can result in physiological problems later. So, singers will peak in their 30s to 50s. Also, the hierarchy of opera does not favor those who have not paid their dues, or have not gone through the ritualized pathways to big parts. And yet, the roles for opera often call for young virgins and callow youth, both whom are expected to sing like they are older, with well-rounded, mature voices. My father used to get annoyed that the 14-year-old heroine of Lucia di Lammamor had always been played by a fat, 50-ish soprano.

So, close-up, the fantasy of young lovers is abruptly undone; when you sit farther away, it can be preserved. Opera singers are more fit now, and look after their bodies and their voices. Even though soprano Karita Mattila is way past 16, she keeps her body toned and frolics in the love letter scene, moving like a maiden in the first burning blush of love. Their bodies act now — opera is no longer about people standing in one place glued to the stage, in excessive costumes, and singing to the audience, enunciating to the back row!

The final scene was so physical that one of us described it as "the near-rape." Another commented that there are some rapes depicted that are less violent. It was very tense throughout and went so quickly that we were breathless at the end! And the lack of ornamented set made it even stronger and really sharp.

The Met has cheap seats, high up in the opera house, called the family circle. They also have standing room "rush" tickets that are cheaper, too. The former is a $15 reservation, well within the budget of many. And the good news is, the acoustics are marvelous so you will not lose on any of the vocal performances. And being farther away, that sense of youthfulness is not compromised — no wrinkles or evidence of surgery can be seen from up there! There are many benefits to paying about the same as you would for a movie.

Thomas Hampson is one of the great contemporary baritones. Karita Mattila's soprano is superlative, even not considering what a great physical actress she is, too (she will go all the way — she danced "7 Veils" as Salome and got naked on stage for that role). Onegin's rejection of Tatiana was fully felt and radiated by Mattila; I doubt I'll ever see a better depiction of a shamed and humiliated innocent young girl than this one in the garden confrontation.

The night we went, there were understudies for Gremin and for either the mother or the nurse; no matter, since to be an understudy at the Met, you have to be better than great. No one could tell there was a not-primary singer on stage, and Gremin's aria about love found late in life received cheers of "Bravo!" (In fact, Sergei Aleksashkin is well respected for his Gremin as the primary singer in performances past.)

Tatiana's maturing was convincing, as was Onegin's change of heart when he realized he could feel love. There are only three acts in this play, and the tale is not a narrative, but "scenes" that highlight the title character's development and changes in life. It's not a tragedy in that the lovers don't die in spurting gore, but in the "what goes around, comes around" sort of way.

It's also one of the few times you'll see the baritone kill off the tenor!

And what can be said about the music? The orchestra was perfect (they even sat for long minutes, at the ready, when the curtain didn't come up for the second half of the third act — the only glitch in the performance) and didn't overpower the singing. And though the likes of Hampson and Mattila will always be extraordinary, they exuded an interesting chemistry toward each other which burnished an already-polished performance. The final duet was filled with the right amount of groping and grabbing and heart-breaking declaration. Tchaikovsky was a genius.

The many singers used to depict field laborers, party guests, society people at a ball was done through costuming as well as in the ways the people moved as they worked or danced. Their vocalizations were clear too — and we expect some in the back to rise up and become the Onegins and Tatianas of the future.

It's an enjoyable — and inexpensive — evening out. Even with the ridiculous e-commerce charge of $7 per ticket and a $1.50 building maintenance charge, the tickets cost us $47 for two. (You can avoid the $7 charge by buying them from the box office, should you live nearby.) We brought jelly sandwiches (less stinky than peanut butter) and bottles of water, if we needed a snack. Otherwise, there are bars on every level for refreshment before the start and during intermission. You can come in business casual or even tidily in jeans, and none will look twice at your dressing down for the opera, even as you enter up the grand staircases and under the newly cleaned and reworked Swarovsky crystal chandeliers. (By the way, the globes ascend at the start of the opera, so don't fear that your view will be blocked by the Sputnik-like balls.)

Production images from www.metoperafamily.com and www.nytimes.com

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