Anna Netrebko has opened the Metropolitan Opera season for three consecutive years, and on Monday night, the company finally found an opera that fits her voice. Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” in a production by Deborah Warner directed by Fiona Shaw, lets Netrebko sing in her native Russian and offers more of a showcase for her lyrical singing and darkening voice than Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and “L’elisir d’amore,” the works into which she shoehorned herself to open the past two seasons.
Staging a new “Onegin” has some downsides. For one thing, opening the season with the production (first seen at the English National Opera in 2011) turned a spotlight on Russia and its crackdown on homosexuality. A grass-roots campaign to get the Met to dedicate its opening night to the issue culminated before Monday’s performance with the unfurling of a rainbow banner on the sidewalk outside and some slogan-chanting in the theater itself before the lights finally dimmed and the conductor Valery Gergiev began the music. (“We’re proud to present Russia’s great gay composer,” the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said in a statement included as an insert in Monday’s program. “That is a message, in itself.”)
In addition, a new “Onegin” meant scrapping the old one. Robert Carsen’s poetic 1997 production, with its falling leaves and birch trunks, was, like many productions, criticized when it first opened — too spare! too echoey! — but now seems widely beloved.
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. Having complained for years that many theater directors seem, when working with singers, to check theatrical values at the door, 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 puppy.
Having achieved this hyperliteralism, almost filmlike in its care, the production seemed not to know where to go with it. The pivotal second scene, when Netrebko’s Tatiana poured out her heart in an ill-advised letter to Onegin, fell flat; Netrebko was passionate and realistic but not, perhaps, inspired. After the action left the Larins’ estate it became increasingly stylized, in a way that gently evoked the Carsen production — chairs across the front of the stage delineating the dance floor at the Larins’ ball, a double row of columns indicating the grand indoor and outdoor spaces of St. Petersburg.
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 quite ring true; in the final scene, Onegin spent a lot of time gesticulating on the floor. And the role of Triquet, the French dancing master who serenades Tatiana on her name day, seemed especially superfluous, whether because of directorial decisions or the vocal inadequacies of John Graham-Hall.
Other characters were adequate to good: Larissa Diadkova as the Nurse, Elena Zaremba as a somewhat woofy Madame Larina, and Oksana Volkova as an appealing Olga. For once, the evening’s high point was the tenor: Piotr Beczala was a bright, ardent Lenski with a smooth, clear voice. Kwiecien 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.
Gergiev, too, lived up to his reputation as a somewhat sloppy eccentric, with significant coordination problems in Act I. By the final scene, however, the evening had at least musically hit its stride; Kwiecien sang powerfully, and Netrebko managed to convey all of the power and dignity and passion of the princess Tatiana has become at the moment when she finds herself compelled to reject Onegin’s advances. The evening wasn’t an unqualified triumph for Netrebko; the Letter Scene was something of a disappointment, simply good when many people expected greatness. But if it’s not clear that this Warner/Shaw production is an “Onegin” to which one 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 New York’s Metropolitan Opera through Oct. 19 with the current cast, and returns from Nov. 23 to Dec. 12 with a different cast.