Opera, once divided into local companies of singers mostly from the same country, blossomed with the advent of air travel into a fully international art form. French, German and Italian opera houses began to welcome artists from all over the world.
It has become easy to take for granted. But in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month ago, it seems remarkable – almost heroic – that the Metropolitan Opera is presenting Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” with a Russian, Ukrainian, American, French-Armenian, Polish and Estonian. . (And those are just the featured players.)
The craftsmanship and care put into this revival of one of Russia’s greatest cultural exports dispels the cynical claim that the West is in a cancellation frenzy. “The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are removed from posters,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said on television on Friday.
Never mind that “Eugene Onegin” opened at the Met that night, as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played Shostakovich across the street. And later this week, the Philharmonie gives three concerts by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, with Rimsky-Korsakov and even more Rachmaninoff the following week. As with so many tales of cancel culture, this one is about fostering a sense of grievance, not about facts.
But twisted as they were, Putin’s comments — and his war — were impossible to forget on Friday. And as with so many Russian operas at the Met, it was hard to watch this performance without thinking about conductor Valery Gergiev, so closely identified with this repertoire in New York, and on the podium for the premiere of the lackluster ‘Onegin’. by Deborah Warner. staged at the season opener in 2013.
Even then, Gergiev faced protests for his ties to Putin – as did 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 either will reappear at the Met because they refused to distance themselves from the Russian president; Gergiev appeared with Putin on Friday by video link.
As they came to mind during “Onegin”, it was with feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment, as well as memories – of Gergiev’s sweaty intensity at its best, and creamy generosity Netrebko’s tone and presence to his own.
Performances in 2013, however, weren’t the best time for either. On Friday, soprano Ailyn Pérez, singing Tatiana for the first time, made a more memorable impression in the part than her predecessor.
Pérez’s voice is less sumptuous than Netrebko’s, but is more convincingly feminine, appropriate for a character in her mid-teens. She didn’t overstate Tatiana’s bookish shyness, nor her anxious crush on Onegin — but made those qualities audible in the vibrant, almost quivering shimmer of her high notes and the soft-grained modesty of her lower range. In the last act, which takes place a few years after the first two, her sound has been hardened just enough to express a wry femininity.
While Netrebko struggled to get his dense voice to float, Pérez sometimes lacked the tonal swell to fill in the outlines in what is heavier singing than lyrical roles – like Mimì in “La Bohème” and Micaëla in “Carmen — for which she was best known at the Met. The big letter scene was therefore more tender than ecstatic, and Tatiana’s final confrontation with Onegin was not quite won over. But like his solo turn in the Met’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem last fall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, his urgency and commitment to the text helped make up for any lack of splendor.
The orchestra must feed the intensity of this opera, and under James Gaffigan the stakes seemed low. It lacked the heavy ferocity of the end of the first scene in Act II, and the wild currents throughout as the letter scene reaches its climax. Sometimes, as in a Polonaise with panache at the start of the ball in Act III, the vivacity was right; sometimes he felt fiery but faceless, just too light.
The sound had been richer and silkier the previous Saturday, when Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’, which runs until May 7, was revived in the company, led by Alexander Soddy. As in “Onegin” (until April 14), the leading lady was singing her part for the first time – and as with Tatiana de Pérez, Butterfly is soprano Eleonora Buratto’s entry into heavier parts at the Met; she will sing Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo this fall.
And like Pérez, Buratto was convincing as a teenager, her game reserved and her tone soft. She began “Un bel dì,” Butterfly’s great outpouring of illusory hopes, not as if embarking on a grand tune, but casually, flowing naturally out of conversation. And after the immense challenge of this number, her voice seemed to relax, widening and growing bolder.
By “Addio, fiorito asil,” near the end, tenor Brian Jagde’s voice as caddish Pinkerton had grown under his top notes, sure and polished from the start; Elizabeth DeShong took over her powerfully sung Suzuki.
In “Onegin”, Pérez was joined by baritone Igor Golovatenko, his tone stable and strong, like Onegin. Tenor Piotr Beczala was fiery but elegant like the doomed Lenski; veterans Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadkova sizzled in small roles.