“Yevgeny Onegin” as staged these days at the Metropolitan Opera isn’t exactly a triumph of modern musical theater.
The semi-whimsical sets of Rolf Gerard looked quaintly tacky when they were new, and that was in 1957. The costumes of Ray Diffen resemble afterthoughts, which they are. Under the dubious circumstances, one can hardly blame the latest stage director on duty, Bodo Igesz, for concentrating on safe and familiar traffic maneuvers.
Luckily, Tchaikovsky’s intimate setting of the Pushkin verse novel can triumph over a dusty production if it happens to be acted with conviction, sung with fervor and, perhaps most important, conducted with a sense of brooding passion. In these crucial respects, the forces at Lincoln Center performed nobly on Saturday.
Ironically, the primary hero of the afternoon hadn’t even been scheduled to be there. If all had gone as planned, the man in the pit would have been Andrew Litton. The operatic neophyte was felled by appendicitis, however, at the first performance. Subsequently, his baton has been taken up by none less than the illustrious artistic director of the company, James Levine.
Even though he had presided over an exhausting and exhaustive “Walkure” just a few hours earlier, Levine brought freshness, urgency and lyrical expansion to his inherited duties. It had been rumored that he agreed to serve as substitute maestro as a special favor for--or tribute to--his celebrated Tatiana, Mirella Freni.
The tender orchestral bouquets he laid at her feet lent credence to the rumors. Levine breathed in unison with the soprano. He adjusted tempos liberally yet sensibly to accommodate every nuance in her particularly poignant Letter Scene. He gave her the sensitive support she deserved as she floated shimmering arcs of pianissimo tone in the final scene. This, indeed, was artistic communication, and collaboration, of a high order.
As she already proved in San Francisco, Freni is an extraordinarily sympathetic, pensive yet impetuous, ultimately noble Tatiana. Not incidentally, she manages to create a staggering illusion of girlish innocence at the decent age of 54.
On this occasion one could notice that a few climactic outbursts escaped ideal focus. Also, if measured by the most authentic Bolshoi standards, Freni’s Tatiana remains rather Italianate. In this musico-dramatic context, it really didn’t matter.
Jorma Hynninen, who happens to serve as general manager of the Finnish National Opera, complemented her as an Onegin of fierce elegance, muted ardor and, where appropriate, bel-canto finesse.
Jerry Hadley brought comparable delicacy and pathos to the painful reveries of Lensky. Michel Senechal offered a small tenoral revelation of his own by imbuing the serenade of old Monsieur Triquet with poetry rather than the usual buffo distortions.
The lower voices proved less impressive. Hans Sotin made a rather bumpy ride of Prince Gremin’s marvelous aria, the final descending phrase evaporating short of its intended destination. Sandra Walker seemed properly giddy in manner but somewhat lightweight in sound as Olga. Conversely, Gweneth Bean overpowered the grandmotherly mutterings of the nurse with an orotund contralto worthy of our friend Erda. Ariel Bybee reduced Mme. Larina to a pallid sketch.
The functional but stilted and awkwardly integrated dance episodes were overseen by Norbert Vesak. Perhaps he ought to put in some time studying the anthological models of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” at the Imperial Theatre.