Opera: Pyotr Tchaikovsky / Eugene Onegin

The Metropolitan Opera (2017)
Libretto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky / Alexander Pushkin
Anna Netrebko (Tatiana), Alexey Dolgov (Lensky), Peter Mattei (Onegin), Elena Maximova (Olga), Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina), Stefan Kocán (Gremin), Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

It was San Francisco about 25 years ago. I was in town for the weekend and had a line on tickets for the San Francisco Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin that a friend of a friend was trying to find a buyer for at the 11th hour. It was to be the high point of a fine weekend escape from Los Angeles.

But on my way to pick up the tix I met up with a friend for a late lunch at House of Nanking, where the food is always delicious and the little dining area is always crowded elbow-to-elbow with interesting people. While I was waiting on my pork confit egg rolls I struck up a conversation with a woman at an adjoining tiny table who had a scintillating wit and brains to spare. The conversation turned flirtatious even before the Sesame Chicken arrived and once the check was paid I followed her out of the joint and ended up chasing her around North Beach till all hours trying in a vain attempt to woo her. Apparently I was not edgy enough for her taste; she strung me along until the wee hours before rebuffing me, and while caught up in this high (and rather operatic) drama I forgot all about calling for those tickets.

By the time I recovered from my hangover the next morning (on days like this 1:45 pm is still morning) to phone the guy about their availability, he told me he had already unloaded them to some assistant professor from the SF Art Institute. So I ended up with exactly nothing for my efforts in either direction.

But I am dogged and resourceful and hate to see my efforts wasted. Mark Twain once said that writers have a duty to pay tribute to the women in their lives by rendering them in literature. So now all this time later I have transformed that woman who is now but a shadow in my memory into an overlong opening to an operatic review. And I have finally made good on my quest to see Eugene Onegin – not live at San Francisco’s lovely War Memorial Opera House, but in a performance of the opera on The Met’s streaming channel from their 2016-2017 season.

The experiences of live opera in San Francisco vs. streaming it to my TV in the midwest are about as different from one another as a night of passion with an amazeballs woman is different from waking up with a hangover on a friend’s sofa. But with either condition, at least I can say: “I lived.”

So I settled in today to watch. As the opera opened I thought the set design for the family home where the first act takes place beautifully done, in particular the way the glass window panels gently diffuse the lighting to evoke a dacha in summer.

The Metropolitan Opera's 2017 production of 'Eugene Onegin'

In these opening summer house scenes, Elena Maximova played a pitch-perfect version of the flighty Olga, and Elena Zaremba performed well Madame Larina, the prospective mother-in-law whom a man would naturally ply with flowers and flattery when hell-bent on romancing one of her yum-yum daughters.

Midway through Act I things got serious with soprano Anna Netrebko‘s bravura turn in Puskai Pogibnu Ya (the “Letter Scene”) which always takes the cake in Eugene Onegin. Netrebko was wonderful in this scene, and the audience let her know it by forcing her to eat stage sawdust out of the corner of her mouth as she lay on the Met stage in faux unconsciousness while they gave her a long, rapturous, and well-deserved ovation.

I really have to note that Netrebko is one hot zoftig hunk of heaven. So delicious looking in this one despite the fact that the make-up department gilded the lily with so much Max Factor foundation that her face looked like it had been worked over by an industrial buffer. But true beauty doesn’t surrender to artifice without a fight, and Netrebko as Tatiana was so ding-dang cute in that long skirt and sleeveless boudoir blouse that I just wanted to take a bite out of her, the little minx. When she collapsed on the stage at the end of the Letter Scene my testosterone production schedule converted to a double shift and it’s good for both myself and The Met that I saw this on streaming media because if I was attending in person I might have jumped out of my parterre box onto the stage to take her in my arms, spirit her away to a dressing room fainting couch to bury my face in her bosom while murmuring declarations of eternal fielty.

Anna Netrebko in The Metropolitan Opera's 2017 production of 'Eugene Onegin'

As for the men in Eugene Onegin, the plum male role of this opera is not who it’s named after. I haven’t read the Pushkin novel it’s based on so I don’t know what the character balance is in the original story, but in Tchaikovsky’s opera the composer’s sympathy is focused not on Onegin but the simple dreamer Vladimir Lensky. While the role of Eugene Ogenin is a meaty one, and Swedish baritone Peter Mattei does a fine job in voice and appearance, it’s Alexey Dolgov as Lensky who gets to work out on the most poignant and emotional arias. He renders the character masterfully, especially in his final scene before the fatal duel (“Kuda, kuda, kuda vi udalilis”) which I found very moving.

Alexey Dolgov in The Metropolitan Opera's 2017 production of 'Eugene Onegin'

Following Act I, the set design continued to impress. The reception and duel challenge setting in Act II is warm and effectively 19th Century, and the Act Three ballroom scene where Eugene marvels at Anna’s butterfly transformation from country lass to high society maven is also stunning; the players twine their way around large Tuscan columns that look quite like real marble despite the obvious fact that for the ease of scene changes they must be just oversized paper towel rolls covered with paper maché and Krylon Khaki Semi-Gloss.

Peter Mattei in The Metropolitan Opera's 2017 production of 'Eugene Onegin'

Kudos to the Met’s video production team for plotting out fine camera angles and movement to help Eugene Onegin move nicely on screen throughout.

And so I finally saw Tchaikovsky’s opera that I missed a quarter century ago. Will put it on my list to screen his Queen of Spades next, as from Eugene Onegin I think the old master’s music is well-suited to the operatic medium. And I hear Galina Gorchakova is stellar in the lead.

Tchaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin - Anna Netrebko

While taking in the supple harmony and addictive leitmotifs of this fine work, I remembered reading an interview with composer/conductor Pierre Boulez where he offered a lot of sourpuss comments about the music of Tchaikovsky. Boulez once infamously declared that he had no interest in ever conducting Tchaikovsky’s music, seeing him as an “abominable” reactionary musical relic who had no role in moving music forward. “I am not a fascist, but I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him,” he once thundered to a journalist.

What a charmer! However, now after seeing Eugene Onegin, I suspect Boulez’ stance wasn’t so borne from a utopian artistic agenda as from spite borne of unreturned passions. If you’ve ever seen photos of Boulez you’d know that Galina Gorchakova wouldn’t have touched that guy with a barge pole. Raisins aigres, as they might say at the Conservatoire de Paris.

But now the fame of Pierre Boulez has receded from the mainstream, intact only in music academy lectures. And as for that lovely but somewhat pretentious lass from House of Nanking who lured me into a Mobius strip of endless bar hopping and socializing that made me miss my appointment with the magic scalper one endless evening decades ago, the reason I have not mentioned her by name is that I’ve forgotten it.

But as for Tchaikovsky and me, we’re still doing fine. The game of intellect inures, but the music of the soul endures. 

Anna Netrebko and Peter Mattei in The Metropolitan Opera's 2017 production of 'Eugene Onegin'