Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Met 2013 Opening Gala – A Not Too Shabby Russian Drama

Over the last few years, I’ve come to look forward to the Met gala opening as the exciting moment when a new season is kicked off and opera is available again on a daily basis after the summer break (if one wanted and could indulge so). I expect the gala to deliver a grandiose operatic experience, either showcasing non-mainstream works or casting a new light on all time favorites. I found last year’s Elisir disappointingly bland, while I liked the epic dusting off of Anna Bolena in 2012 and the controversial Tosca opening production in 2011. This year, I had relatively low expectations of being blown away by Eugene Onegin since I tend to get less emotionally involved when operas are sung in a language I don’t understand. Also, I had my own (admittedly misinformed) prejudices on Russian not being musical enough for my operatic taste.

The gala production of Eugene Onegin proved me wrong. I discovered it to be a wonderful powerful drama and was surprised by how beautifully musical the singing sounded. I was expecting it to be harsh but it was actually sweet and very romantic. It was distracting to have to constantly peek at the subtitles to really appreciate the libretto and the story (“niet” being pretty much the only word I got) however the reading did not detract too much from the experience.

A cast of sensational strong and inspired singers helped mitigate my Russian prejudices and it was definitely one of the main reasons I got swept away by this Onegin. When Anna Neterebko sings in her native Russian she is even more impressive (and expressive) than when she does in Italian.  Her acting as Tatyana was convincing and superb, with an evolution from shy dreamy girl, to fiery woman in love, to mature icy spouse (though she clearly enjoyed more the moments when she could unleash her diva-self).

I found Mariusz Kwiecien initially too stiff as Onegin, while it may be part of the character I somehow felt that he was not harsh enough. It may be because I discovered him as a playful Don Giovanni and a hilarious Belcore, and I just could not really see him as an arrogant Russian aristocrat moping around in disdain. However, when Onegin breaks down and comes together as a character in Act III, Kwiecien delivered big time with devastating and desperate passionate dramatic flair. His last defeated scream that concluded the opera was quintessential drama.

Piotr Beczala was the real revelation of the night for me, particularly given the scarcity of tenors able to make me melt these days. When I heard him last year as the Duke in Rigoletto I was underwhelmed and found him not powerful or warm enough. Maybe the gala opening was his night or maybe he performs better in Russian, no matter the reason he was sensational - open, warm, sweet and powerful at the same time, just the way I like a tenor. His Lensky’s declaration of love to Olga in Act I was joyful, powerful and uplifting, made me sigh dreamily to young innocent pure love. In the Act II duel he was heartbreaking, I actually gripped my armrests when he was shot and grieved his early operatic death that deprived me of the pleasure of hearing him in Act III. Will definitely look forward to more Bezcala this season.

On the direction, I did not find that the last minute change from Deborah Warner to Fiona Shaw was such a disaster, I thought that the dramatic core of the opera was conveyed powerfully: the stream of consciousness in Tatyana’s letter scene, her confrontation with Onegin, his hug of Lensky before the duel and the last Tatyana-Onegin Act III encounter where she kisses him passionately before walking away in the snow and never looking back.  

The sets, however, did not always work for me. The rustic realism of the country scenes and costumes
in Act I was a bit underwhelming, though it did contrast effectively with the glitter of Act III, consistently with one of the narrative strengths of the opera. I got more excited with the staging starting from the duel scene with its looming fog and barren trees, when the mirrored floors and walls really started to shine, functioning at times as iced surfaces in the Russian winter or as ritzy ballrooms of St. Petersburg’s high society. All in all maybe not the most impressive sets, however with such amazing levels of singing and acting the décor was really secondary.

I was impressed by this production as a wonderful theatrical and musical experience, with some high peaks of punching drama. Since it was my first Onegin, I cannot really say how safe or adventurous the direction’s choices were but I will be on the lookout for other Onegins in the future.

A gala worthy performance? Definitely, at least for me: singing and acting were top class, drama kept me glued to my seat and moved me deeply, made me discover and appreciate Russian opera and my eyes teared up a few times. Unfortunately I could not hum and sing my favorite arias on my walk back home and go check the libretto to appreciate the nuances of the language but I will certainly do so after Levine’s Cosi’ Fan Tutte tonight. (Lei)

All photo credits: Met
(Quick note on the anti-Putin riots at the gala: the only shouting I want to hear inside an opera house is that coming from the stage, however I will say that the whole affair remained fairly short and civilized between the national anthem and the overture, with no disruption of the opera itself - were it not the case I would have unleashed some raging fury on the protesters, I can barely tolerate coughers during a performance, let alone rioting.  Also, the protesting gentlemen wore tuxedos, which always helps.) 

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