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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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Met at the Movies: Eugene Onegin

By Joseph So February 27, 2007

"Build ‘em and they’ll come”, you say? The Met certainly thinks so. Now into the fourth instalment of a season of six Met operas at your local Cineplex, all indications point to Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, having hit upon a winning formula by bringing opera to the masses. The demand has been such that more theatres have been added and all shows are repeated. Even a second showing of I Puritani recently played to near-capacity. Given the huge success, the experiment will likely continue next season, and there is even rumour that another theatre chain might get in on the action. Opera fans have never had it so good.

Last Saturday, I attended Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneginstarring Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, and America’s sweetheart Renée Fleming as Tatiana. Since winning the top price at the Cardiff Singer of the World in 1989, Hvorostovsky has reigned supreme as the premiere baritone in the world – pace Bryn Terfel, who incidentally was beaten by the Russian beat Cardiff. To my ears, no baritone today possesses a more beautiful sound and is as easy on the eye, shall we say. I recently saw his Rodrigo in Don Carlo at the Met, and he easily outshone the rest of the cast. So it is a little sad to hear that he plans to retire this role from his repertoire. Fleming, on the other hand, is assaying her first Tatiana. These two are joined by the marvellous Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as Lensky and other “authentic” Russian singers in supporting roles, with the great Valery Gergiev at the helm. Opening night a week ago was greeted enthusiastically by the public and the press.

When Robert Carsen unveiled his severely pared down, minimalist production at the Met several seasons back, it was negatively received by a hostile, tradition-bound public and the press. There were even a few scattered boos, a rare occurrence. The production’s sparseness serves to emphasize the psychological states of the characters and their relationships to each other without the distraction of elaborate sets so common in other Met productions. The opulence one has come to expect in the Act Three ball scene is absent. Now so many years later, the public’s reception is warmer, though opinions remain divided. It works reasonably well on the large theatre screen, although I must confess that I miss the evocative staging of a desolate winter sky, a field of birch trees and falling snow, setting the tone for Lensky’s “Kuda, kuda” and the Duel Scene. There are some nice touches in the Carsen production, like the “flashback” scene of Onegin alone onstage before the music begins in Act One; and the seamless transition from the Duel Scene to the ball scene in the Gremin Palace.

The cast was almost uniformly excellent, led by the consummate Hvorostovsky, whose Onegin remains unequalled. Tatiana will likely figure prominently in Fleming’s future. Vocally it suits her perfectly, except a tendency to dip into chest voice a bit too vigorously in the Letter Scene. Nobody can seriously expect an opera singer with a twenty-year career behind her to look like a love-sick sixteen year old in Act One. Still, she was near perfect in the Letter Scene, and at her very best as the mature Tatiana in the final confrontation with Onegin. In other roles such as Desdemona, Fleming can be a bit over-the-top with her method acting, but fortunately she curbed her tendency to overact here. As Olga, Elena Zaremba looked too mature and her dark mezzo too steely to be a younger sister. In the opera house she would have been fine, but television close-ups are cruel. Vargas sang wonderfully as Lensky; only his lack of facial expression proved a liability. All supporting roles are well taken, in particular the lively nurse Filippyevna (Larisa Shevchenko) and a well sung Madame Larina (Svetlana Volkova). Sergei Aleksashkin’s bass was a little grainy as Gremin, but it was in character. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was an amusing Monsieur Triquet. Gergiev must know this score like the back of his hand, and it showed in his conducting, fluttery fingers and all. Act One was a little slow, but he built the momentum to a shattering climax at the end.

The clientele at the Sheppard Grande was mostly middle-aged and older, with a gender ratio of about four to one in favour of women. Given it was Onegin, Hvorostovsky and Gergiev, there was a huge contingent of Russians. As before, there were smatterings of applause after each aria and an ovation at the final curtain. Too bad technical glitches continue to plague these simulcasts. In Theatre Six, a few minutes into Act One and lasting until intermission, there was a high pitched squeal that was faint but enough to be very bothersome. When it first started, I thought someone’s cellphone had gone off, but alas it continued unabated for many minutes. Midway through the Letter Scene, occasionally the top of Fleming’s head – and at one point her whole head – was cut off! Another issue, albeit minor, was a dozen instances of momentary, split-second loss of sound scattered throughout the performance. Those people in Theatres One and Three I spoke to reported no such problems, so I count myself as having bad luck. However, I am told that there were also glitches in the Paramount in downtown Toronto as well. A friend who attended the Paramount Burrard inVancouver said they had to deal with a seriously jerky picture throughout Act One, obviously a satellite reception issue. It appears that the simulcast technology is still suffering from reliability issues. Let’s hope these glitches will be ironed out in the near future. Upcoming transmissions include a repeat of The First Emperor on March 10th, and Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia on March 24th.

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