Opera, once divided into local groups of singers, mostly from the same country, blossomed into a fully international art form with the advent of air traffic. French, German and Italian opera houses began to host performers from all over the world.
That has become so natural. But in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month ago, it seems remarkable—almost heroic—that the Metropolitan Opera is performing Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” with a cast that is Russian, Ukrainian, American, French, Armenian, Polish and Estonian. † (And those are just the featured players.)
The craftsmanship and care taken in this revival of one of Russia’s greatest cultural exports dispels the cynical allegation that the West is in a sensational frenzy. “The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from the posters,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said on television on Friday.
Never mind that “Eugene Onegin” opened at the Met that night, with the New York Philharmonic playing Shostakovich across the street. And later this week the Philharmonic will give three concerts by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, with Rimsky-Korsakov and more Rachmaninoff the following week. As with so many cancellation culture stories, this one is about harboring a sense of resentment, not the facts.
But distorted as it may be, Putin’s comments — and his war — on Friday were impossible to forget. And as with so much Russian opera at the Met, it was hard to watch this performance without thinking of the conductor Valery Gergiev, who was so closely associated with this repertory in New York, and on stage for the premiere of Deborah Warners boring “Onegin” staging when it opened the season in 2013.
Even then, Gergiev faced protests over his ties to Putin – as did the star soprano Anna Netrebko, the ruling prima donna of the house, who sang Tatiana. Now both of their international careers are in shambles, and it seems unlikely that either of them will ever make an appearance at the Met again because they refused to distance themselves from the Russian president; Gergiev appeared on Friday with Putin via video link†
When they entered their minds during ‘Onegin’ it was with feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment, as well as memories – of Gergiev’s sweaty intensity at its best, and Netrebko’s creamy generosity of tone and presence at hers.
However, the 2013 performances weren’t the best time either. On Friday, soprano Ailyn Pérez, who sang Tatiana for the first time, made a more memorable impression in the part than her predecessor.
Pérez’s voice is less luscious than Netrebko’s, but more convincingly girlish, befitting a character in her mid-teens. She did not exaggerate Tatiana’s shyness, or her anxious infatuation with Onegin – but made those qualities audible in the strongly vibrating, almost trembling brilliance of her high notes and the soft-grained modesty of her lower range. In the last act, several years after the first two, her sound was hardened just enough to convey disillusioned femininity.
While Netrebko struggled to make her dense voice soar, Pérez sometimes missed the tonal swell to fill in the big lines in what is a heavier vocal than the lyrical roles – like Mimì in “La Bohème” and Micaëla in “Carmen” – for which she is best known at the Met. So the big Letter scene was more tender than ecstatic, and Tatiana’s final confrontation with Onegin was not quite overcome. But as in her solo performance at the Met’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem last fall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, her urgency and dedication to the lyrics helped make up for the lack of softness.
The orchestra needs to fuel the intensity in this opera, and under James Gaffigan the stakes felt low. Missing was the heavy ferocity of the ending of the first scene in Act II, and the wild currents in the ensemble as the Letter Scene reaches its climax. Sometimes, as in a Polonaise with panache at the beginning of the prom of Act III, the vivacity was good; sometimes it felt spicy but faceless, just too light.
The sound had been luscious and softer this past Saturday, when Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which runs through May 7, was revived at the company under the direction of Alexander Soddy. As in “Onegin” (until April 14), the lead actress sang her part for the first time – and as with Pérez’ Tatiana, Butterfly is soprano Eleonora Buratto’s entry into heavier parts at the Met; there she will be singing Elisabetta in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” this fall.
And like Pérez, Buratto was convincing as a teenager, her acting reserved and her tone gentle. She began ‘Un bel dì’, Butterfly’s great outpouring of illusory hope, not as if she was embarking on a grand aria, but casually, flowing naturally from the conversation. And after the huge challenge of that number, her voice seemed to relax, get wider and bolder.
With ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, towards the end, the tenor Brian Jagde’s voice as the caddy had filled Pinkerton under his top notes, safe and polished from the start; Elizabeth DeShong reprized her powerfully sung Suzuki.
In “Onegin” Pérez was accompanied by the baritone Igor Golovatenko, his tone stable and strong, like Onegin. The tenor Piotr Beczala was fiery yet elegant like the doomed Lenski; veterans Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadkova were racy in small roles.