We caught a rerun of the Met's Eugene Onegin last night in HD at the Palookaville multiplex. It was the second time we'd seen EO in a month--previously, in as Russian theater with a Russian cast, chorus and orchestra at St. Petersburg. The compare/contrast is entertaining and probably instructive, if I am smart enough to dope it out. There was something wonderful about the insistent Russian-ness of the St. Petersburg performance. The Met's, by contrast, is a cultural encounter--I do not say a clash. The Met's Tatiana is the almost-inevitable Renée Fleming; Lensky was the Mexican-born Ramón Vargas. But the conductor was the ubiquitous Valery Gergiev, by now established as the sole proprietor of Russian opera culture worldwide. And the title role went to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who looked and sounded like he'd been preparing for this occasion all his life (the Met debut of the production with this cast was in 1997; I'm not clear when exactly the DVD wa made).
I feel a bit equivocal about EO; it's easy to stick up your nose at it--to say that Tchaikovsky isn't that great to begin with, and that opera was really not his dish. Indeed there is nothing here that sticks in your mind like "Nessun Dorma" or "La Ci Darem La Mano." No doubt the signature piece is Tatiana's confessional "Letter Scene," but it is more famous for its length (15 minutes, give or take) than its content. There's a lot of opportunity for display in the orchestra and plenty of dance--enough of both to make you suspect that Tchaikovsky just wasn't all that interested in, or comfortable with, the singing. Many have remarked that his scenes are more tableaux than action.
Yet it's almost unfailingly an agreeable way to spend an evening: an interesting story well told, with a lot of music that is agreeable even if not dazzling. In the Met's presentation, I think you get something a bit better than that. Hvorostovsky,, as I suggested, is the ideal Onegin: handsome, dynamic, proud, self-involved. He's probably a good exemplar of why women like bad-news guys: he'd be the very devil to live with, but you have to concede that he sure is cute.
If Hvorostovsky was born to his part, you'd have to give even higher marks to Vargas, who had to learn his. Press reports say that he threw himself into mastering the Russian. But more than that he mastered the character: his Lensky is just as proud and self-involved as his friend, but tetchier and more unsure of himself--and susceptible to a romantic self-delusion that leads him to his doom.
In the early acts, I thought Fleming was Fleming--disciplined and polished in a style that gives you nothing with which to quarrel. But did you ever notice how often after a Fleming performance, the main thing you remember is the gown? Whatever else you can say about her, the girl does love her threads.
All this is background for saying that her final scene with Hvorostovsky was one of the most arresting I've ever seen her play. I don't know if it was him, the score, or the mere fact that for once she was not wearing a fancy frock: the two of them just ripped off in an ecstasy of passion and, of course, separation. For the sake of her fans if not her career, I can only hope those two get together more often.