Anna Netrebko has opened the Metropolitan Opera season for three consecutive years, and on Monday night, the company finally found an opera that seemed to fit her voice. “Eugene Onegin,” in a production by Deborah Warner directed by Fiona Shaw (Warner had to have surgery, and her longtime collaborator Shaw pinch-hit for her), lets Netrebko sing in her native language, Russian, and offers more of a showcase for her lyrical singing and increasingly darkening voice than either “Anna Bolena” or “L’elisir d’amore,” the Donizetti operas into which she shoehorned herself last year and the year before.
Staging a new “Onegin” brought some collateral damage. For one thing, bringing the production here (it opened at the English National Opera in 2011) turned a spotlight on Russia, sparking a grassroots campaign to get the Met to dedicate its opening night to victims of the country’s recent crackdown on homosexuality — a campaign that culminated before Monday’s performance with the unfurling of a rainbow banner on the plaza in front of the theater and a bit slogan-chanting in the theater itself, before the lights finally dimmed and Valery Gergiev, the conductor and putative friend of Putin, began the music. (“We’re proud to present Russia’s great gay composer,” said the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, in a statement printed in Bloomberg News and included as an insert in Monday’s program. “That is a message, in itself.”)
For another, a new “Onegin” meant scrapping the old one, Robert Carsen’s poetic 1997 production, with its falling birch leaves, that some thought had more life left in it. When the Carsen production opened, its spareness drew a lot of criticism; now, everyone seems to think that they all appreciated its considerable beauty all along.
Shaw and Warner’s production was certainly not spare -- at least, not for the first four of the opera’s seven scenes, set in a country estate in rural Russia and thickly textured with detailed character work. I was enthralled by the acting in the first scene, in which every member of the chorus seemed to have a distinct inner life, and the leads were three-dimensional: Netrebko, playing a young awkward girl in the throes of her first crush, followed Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin like a mute puppy. I only later realized that one difference between the first half of the opera and the final scenes was that the first half was reworked; its film-like conservatory setting (created by Tom Pye) represented a reconception and step away from Warner’s original vision, a wooden barn.
Having achieved this hyperliteralism, almost film-like in its care, the production seemed not to know where to go with it. It fell a little flat when called on to animate Tatiana’s pouring out her heart in an ill-advised letter to Onegin in the pivotal second scene; the realism began to drag, leaving, perhaps, too little room for inspiration. After the action left the Larins’ estate it became increasingly stylized, in a way that even gently evoked the Carsen production -- the chairs across the front of the stage delineating the dance floor at the Larins’ ball, the double row of columns before a nearly empty stage that indicated the grand indoor and outdoor spaces of St. Petersburg -- but wasn’t quite as good.
Even the character inspiration seemed to abate; in the penultimate scene, Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s elderly husband (Alexei Tanovitski, singing with a furry and slightly forced-sounding bass) kept pulling Tatiana toward him in a way that didn’t make sense with the action or the setting. And in the final scene, Onegin spent a lot of time gesticulating on the floor, hardly an effective way to win back someone’s love. As to the character of Triquet, the French dancing-master who serenades Tatiana on her name day, it was hard to tell whether he seemed especially superfluous because of decisions the director made or because of the vocal inadequacies of John Graham-Hall, who sounded a little clueless in this French character-tenor role.
Other characters were adequate to good: Larissa Diadkova as the Nurse, Elena Zaremba as a somewhat woofy Madame Larina, and Oksana Volkova as a cheery, appealing Olga. And the main characters were quite strong. A high point was Piotr Beczala as a bright, ardent Lenski, debonair and high-strung and with a lovely tenor. Kwecien was convincingly youthful and compact as Onegin, with a sound more pliable than is his wont; though there were a couple of infelicitous moments in the first act, including an attempt at a gentle high note that came out like a bleat at the end of his ariso, he hit his stride in the third, on the floor or no.
It didn’t help anyone that Gergiev lived up to his reputation as a sometimes sloppy eccentric, especially in Act I. He had perhaps the fewest problems with Netrebko, and with reason: they’ve been singing together since the start of her career, before she came to New York on tour with him and the Kirov Opera in 1998.
There’s been a lot of speculation about what roles Netrebko should be singing once it was clear that bel canto opera is not any longer her most comfortable home turf. The expectations for this “Onegin,” accordingly, were great, and sometimes she lived up to them. A few of the jewel-colored notes she sang in the first act, in quiet apostrophes, were gorgeous, and in the final scene, she was outstanding, at once impassioned and regal, every inch the princess that Tatiana has become, yet hiding her glory under a gray coat for her final meeting with Onegin. The only disappointment was the Letter Scene, which was perfectly OK in a situation when many people expected much more; there was some thinness in the voice, making it sound as if this is the largest role, size-wise, she should attempt on stage, and the staging seemed to make her at once too restrained and too aimless. But if it’s not, ultimately, clear that this Warner/Shaw production is an Onegin to which one often wants to return, Netrebko has found in it a role that one can imagine her singing again, and again, and again.
“Eugene Onegin” continues at the Metropolitan Opera through Oct. 19 with the current cast, and returns from Nov. 23 to Dec. 12 with a different cast.