09/24/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Met Opera: An Opening Night Of Champagne, Tchaikovsky, And Protest

The Metropolitan Opera opened its new season last night with a champagne gala inside the house, a packed Lincoln Center Plaza to watch on TV outside, and angry protests both inside and outside against Russia's oppression of gay citizens while Russian artists headlined the Met's new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

It was a lively night at the opera. Fueling the protest was the fact that the star of this production, the soprano Anna Netrebko, and the evening's conductor, Valery Gergiev, are both Russian and both avowed supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The curtain was delayed for several minutes while at least one heckler shouted outrage that the Met did not dedicate the performance to victims of LGBT bias. Pickets demonstrated outside in the plaza.

Anticipating such disruptions, Met General Manager Peter Gelb included a note in the opening night program deploring Russia's new anti-gay laws, respecting the rights of activists to protest, but pointing out that in its 129-year history "the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how just."

"We stand against the significant human rights abuses that take place every day in many countries," Gelb said in his program note. "But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world." He ended by acknowledging Tchaikovsky as a closet gay, a stand that could get him in trouble in Putin's Russia.

The opera itself was for the most part a delight to see and hear, admirably sung by a stellar cast, especially Netrebko's Tatiana, and one that audiences around the world will be able to see Oct. 5 when the Met broadcasts it live to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries as the first offering of the new season in its Live in HD series.

The new production of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky's lyrical masterpiece based on Pushkin's epic poem, has been plagued by problems from the start. The esteemed British theater director Deborah Warner, who had originally staged it at the English National Opera in 2011, was engaged to mount it for the Met's new season. Medical problems forced Warner to withdraw this summer, and she suggested her frequent collaborator, the actress Fiona Shaw, take over as director.

Shaw, however, also had a commitment to direct another opera for the Glyndebourne Festival in Britain, which meant she would have restricted rehearsal time for the Met season opener. Nonetheless, the Met agreed to the arrangement. The end result was somewhat mixed and clearly could have used a stronger directorial hand and eye.

Tchaikovsky selected several individual episodes from Pushkin's great poetic saga for his opera, and in doing so turned the focus to Tatiana rather than Onegin. The story is one of the unrequited love of a young girl on the Russian steppes for a dashing dandy from St. Petersburg. The plot has all the elements of an 18th-century romance novel, including a fateful duel, and ends with the tables turned on the title character.

Warner has moved the action from the early to the late 19th century and the sets could easily double for a Chekhov play. Musically, Gergiev brings out all the lushness of Tchaikovsky's lyrical score, but the tempo is often rather melancholic and on occasion, especially in the third-act, it slows almost to a crawl.

Netrebko, who has become a favorite of Met audiences, sings with her usual assured command, her voice as rich and warm as velvet. An accomplished actress, her interpretation of Tatiana, however, is oddly one-dimensional. While there is plenty of inherent Russian misery in her performance, there is little of the lovesick schoolgirl or the "naïve soul" Tatiana claims to be. And her big "letter scene" was curiously more ponderous than passionate.

As Onegin, the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien seems more a dour cynic than the "gay dog" and "fond deceiver" that Pushkin describes, but the voice is steady and strong and his scenes with Netrebko are moving. The tenor Piotr Beczala returns from his success as last season's Rigoletto to deliver a stirring performance as Lenski (though he sings his great second-act meditation standing in the shadows, an oversight a director would have rectified), and Oksana Volkova is feisty and flirtatious as Tatiana's sister, Olga.

Two unmitigated joys in this new Onegin are the Russian folk and ballroom dancing under Kim Brandstrup's splendid choreography and the always excellent Met chorus, especially in the opening scene as peasants celebrate the end of harvest in song and the dancers toss young Russian maidens in the air like dolls.