THE BLOG
11/24/2013 11:20 am ET | Updated Jan 24, 2014

First Nighter: Met's Second Cast Eugene Onegin Has Chekhovian Flair

The new cast of Eugene Onegin, the season opener at the Met, has weighed in. Turns out -- hooray! -- they're a troupe of heavyweights, especially as conducted by debuting Alexander Vedernikov, who appears to have Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky deeply embedded in his DNA.

Very old news that the music to this sad tale of love thwarted by time is ravishingly lyrical through what the authors call "lyric scenes." Oh, is it lyrical, with the strings and woodwinds particularly lyrical throughout. But that doesn't mean it's always well sung -- and, more than that, that the Tchaikovsky-Konstantin Shilovsky libretto is expertly acted.

It is now, however, very well sung and acted by Marina Poplavskaya as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as Onegin, Rolando Villazon as Lenski, Elena Maximova (also Met bowing) as Olga, Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina, Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna, John Graham-Hall as Triquet and Stefan Kocan as Prince Gremin.

Starting with Poplavskaya and Mattei and perhaps starting with their final scene, the mature Tatiana's steadfastness when confronted by Onegin's sudden passionate outpouring is a model of operatic bravura. As Alexander Pushkin wrote it, the confrontation is heart-breaking, and Tchaikovsky only enhances the anguish -- with Poplavskaya and Mattei taking full advantage of that enhancement.

Earlier, Poplavskaya gives a lovely account of Tatiana's infatuation, performing the letter-writing aria with properly girlish intensity. Mattei, whose height is an added boon here, is just as kind-hearted, if rightly off-handed as Onegin explaining his aversion to settling down.

Those wondering how Villazon comes through vocally might have had concerns initially when he sounded constrained, but later he hit full (or nearly full) throttle -- and his acting, like his colleagues', was never less than dramatically committed. His rarely is. Nice death collapse, too. Kocan's declaration of Prince Gremin's love for Tatiana, delivered downstage center, was rich with feeling, and Graham-Hall's version of Triquet's French name-day tribute was rich with charm.

But what of this new production? Much of the recent gossip has focused on the availability of the indisposed Deborah Warner, now credited with production, and Fiona Shaw, credited as director. It's probably best to lay all that to rest, since what's on view -- no matter who did what when -- is much more than adequate. This shouldn't be surprising, since Warner and Shaw have collaborated successfully for a couple of decades and by now know how each other thinks -- Warner usually as director and Shaw as actor.

To put it plainly, they've conceived of this Eugene Onegin as Chekhov set to music. They may have taken the notion from Onegin's early comment that he's bored. Certainly, boredom afflicts Chekhov's characters like an easily communicated virus. The pair has treated the Larin estate as one of those Chekhovian country homes that probably still dot the land, now referred to as dachas. They've imagined the constant comings and goings of family, servants and local visitors so that there's plenty of believable life going on.

Putting such a Russian setting on stage, they've recruited previous members of their team. They've come through collectively -- set designer Tom Pye, costume designer Chloe Obolensky (Tatiana's third-act gown is a stunner and confirms her new confidence) and lighting designer Jean Kalman, who's engineered a couple of sunrises, since we all know Russians of this late 19th-century period make a habit of staying up all night.

A special word of praise for the projections Ian William Galloway and Finn Ross show, often featuring birches, during the many set-changing pauses. There's a good deal of dance that Kim Brandstrup choreographs but always with the underlying situations in mind. Nothing's pushily attention-grabbing. The first-scene country turn by four dancers and the several later waltzes and the cotillion lend cheerful veracity to the undercurrents of dramatic turmoil.

Few reviews of Met activity wouldn't mention Donald Palumbo's chorus, who get to sing Tchaikovsky's choral tunes often and do so with their usual aplomb.

Among the many nice touches Warner and Shaw contribute, there's one with an apple plucked from a basket immediately follow by a summer jacket thrown over a shoulder. And there are several other subtleties imparted as well during the long or short time Shaw was around. Another one occurs at the name-day beginning of the second act, when two little boys in military costume comically thrust and parry with wooden swords.

The mock duel foreshadows the more serious one between Onegin and Lenski that sorrowfully ends the act. It's a nice clue that Warner and Shaw did much more than give their Eugene Onegin assignment a lick and a promise. Did the singers suffer from any lack of attention to the staging? Evidently, not these singers.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.