Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), at the Met

On February 24, 2007, Regal Cinemas did a closed-circuit high-definition broadcast of the 1:30 Metropolitan Opera performance of Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin (1877). The opera is subtitled "Lyric Scenes in Three Acts," based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, libretto by Tchaikovsky and K. S. Shilovsky. The conductor was Valery Gergiev; stage director is Peter McClintock. Tatiana was Renee Flemming, Onegin was Dmitri Hrovotovsky, Lenski was Ramon Vargas, and Gremin was Sergei Alaksashkin. As shown in a theater, no "rating" but it would probably fit as PG-13.

The opera was composed about the same time as the Fourth Symphony, f-minor, and the musical connection is obvious. The closing scene, where Eugene laments Tatana's refusal to yield to his desire for domain (when he has married, his having rejected her earlier), ends FFF in f minor, with the emotional effect of the end of a symphonic first movement. But watching the opera you get the impression that Tchaikovsky really is an orchestral composer, and does best when guided by the discipline of German sonata form (or else his imagination for choreography). The epochal first movement of the f minor symphony crashes to a violent close with real emotional blood letting. Yet it seems to be a mid point, like an intermission of a long movie, or perhaps the end of a television season, with a major character in an emotional quandry about his own identiy. The first movement of the Manfred (b minor) has a similar effect.

The story of the opera, widely summarized on the Web, provides some of Tchaikovsky's own contradictions. The opening scenes, with the music rather gentle, suggest autumnal life in rural Czarist Russia where winters came early (before global warming). The stage is cluttered with autumn leaves. For the most part, the stagecraft is kept simple in this performance. The story builds slowly, with various encounters and drawing room or ballroom scenes, leading to the opera's famous entre'actes and polonaises, but not as effective as Tchaikovsky's symphonic music of the same time period. Eugene tells Tatainia that he loves her like a brother, but has no desire for "bliss". The hint early on could be that Eugene is a reflection of the composer -- that is, homosexual; but if so then later developments will "change" him. He kills a rival in a duel (sort of like Burr and Hamilton) and then travels the world, finding his self-possession or self-dating empty. There is one curious, mildly homoerotic scene during the second interlude where male servants undress and redress him. He needs a dose of aesthetic realism -- that is, marriage and family, Weekly Standard style. The libretto here almost sounds like something out of George Gilder, Maggie Gallagher or Jennifer Roback Morse. But she will not have him, and hence the f minor crash at the end.

I've wondered if a movie company (say Sony Pictures Classics) could buy these broadcasts (after all the legal negotiations with the Met and all the various theater and movie industry unions and guilds) and show them in Imax theaters around the country. That would be a good way to get opera to more people, and it would certainly "sell." The broadcast and film approach allows closeups of the actors (sometimes with aesthetically curious results, as in the dresser scene) that are not available to theater audiences (except maybe through the "rear window" binoculars).

In a time when many movie theaters and legitimate stages have excess capacity during the workweek, this sounds like a plausible business idea.

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