Eugene Onegin

The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, February 20.

There’s a good deal to love about Eugene Onegin—the joyous, robust choral numbers in the first act; the presence of a heroine with a modicum of independence and fire; Lenski’s gorgeous preduel aria and the way fragments of it weave themselves into the final act like ghosts—but what tickles me most is the opera’s scant affection for Onegin himself.

As I understand it, Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel romanticizes the jaded, discontented aristocrat, but Tchaikovsky’s adaptation clearly sides with the innocent but resilient Tatiana and the idealistic poet Lenski. As far as the composer is concerned (he also put together the libretto), Onegin rightfully reaps the misery he sows. The result of that outlook is a beautiful but oddly plotted opera without a hero—romantic music with a weirdly unromantic plot. I like it!

Tchaikovsky preferred to call Eugene Onegin a collection of “lyric scenes” rather than an opera, for the work has a relatively episodic nature. It ambles along, following the worldly Onegin’s encounters with the young Larin sisters: playful, teasing Olga and pensive, dreamy Tatiana. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, but he coldly rebuffs her and—more out of boredom than anything else—shamelessly flirts with Olga, his friend Lenski’s fiancée, at a ball at the women’s country estate. Enraged and humiliated, Lenski challenges Onegin to a duel, and events spiral downward from there.

Star soprano Renée Fleming sang the role of Tatiana to a wildly appreciative, sold-out audience this season at the Met. Strictly speaking, she’s probably a little old for the role—Tatiana is a teenager at the opera’s outset—but she pulled it off with vivacity and a lovely, lilting tone. Her extended “Letter Scene” in Act I was youthfully rhapsodic, overflowing with the outsized emotions of adolescence without ever sacrificing the beauty of the music. The sure-footed vocal acrobatics were splendid, but her delicate, perfectly controlled pianissimos impressed me most.

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the brooding title role. I confess I didn’t pay much attention to him at first, so dazzled was I by Fleming and the tenor Ramón Vargas, who played Lenski, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who sang a single, deceptively simple aria in a pure, ringing tone. But in the third act, Hvorostovsky finally had his moment to shine: an aching, depressive yet paradoxically elevating aria, which he sang commandingly, powerfully, fervently. The final impassioned confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana crackled, with Hvorostovsky and Fleming giving gorgeously expressive performances.

In this production, by Robert Carsen, the drama played out on a nearly bare stage: a carpet of leaves and three thin tree trunks denoted a garden, and a neat square of chairs represented a ball room. Dramatic lighting heightened the mood of many scenes, but for the most past, the remarkably spare production put the music on center stage, allowing it to soar without distraction.

I was surprised to read later that Carsen’s production was a love-it-or-hate-it affair when it premiered in 1997. To me, it was beautiful, and its simplicity highlighted a few striking images, such as a glimpse of the sad, solitary Onegin amid the autumnal leaves during the overture. The production also quietly underlined some of the psychodrama. The tight square of chairs emphasized Onegin’s social claustrophobia at the country ball, and a later ball in St. Petersburg was essentially the same, just with more opulent furniture.

I still didn’t have much sympathy for Onegin. (I’ve never had much patience for strained, self-absorbed, cooler-than-thou ennui; if you’re soul-crushingly bored all the time, that says more about you than your environment.) But even if Tchaikovsky and I didn’t sympathize with Onegin’s tortured apathy, the production’s bleak rendering of the ball and Hvorostovsky’s rich, eloquent voice made me understand it.