At certain peaks in this performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, filmed live in High Definition at the New York Met in February 2007, I couldn't resist the feeling that this is as good as opera gets. It's not consistently great – the production is a little disappointing and not all the singing is of the same high standard – but particularly when Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming give their violent and frank rendition of the closing scene, there's an almost cinematic, nail-biting realism to the experience.
Robert Carsen is amongst the most in-demand directors of the day, but the reason why continues to escape me. This production of Onegin is inoffensive compared to the recent dreaded staging of Iphigénie en Tauride at Covent Garden (review here) or his petrochemical refinery version of Il trovatore on the lake at Bregenz (reviewed on DVD here), yet I still feel that one of the finest achievements of Romantic opera deserves a more probing staging than this.
Michael Levine's costumes are generally very fine and capture the period and characters' personalities well, with the exception of Tatiana's stuffy dresses for the opening act which don't aid the very beautiful Renée Fleming's efforts to emulate the looks and behaviour of a sixteen-year-old. Levine's sets, however, are disappointingly boring. A white box serves as the main piece of scenery throughout. Act I sees the floor being covered with golden leaves (some of which drop from the sky), possibly expressing the autumnal quality of Tchaikovsky's wistful score, I suppose, but it's not particularly inspiring. Our first vision is of Onegin in a lone chair, fiddling with Tatiana's letter in grief – presumably to suggest that the whole opera is a flashback in Onegin's mind – and there are tree trunks for the characters to lean on during the opening scene.
The leaves remain in place for Tatiana's Letter Scene, in which a bed and a desk are placed amidst all the leaves; Tatiana runs round the stage flinging them from side to side at the peak of her great soliloquy, which again may signify abandonment but says very little else about the text. The ballroom feels especially sparse, with nothing but a square of chairs lined up to confine the dancing to the middle of the stage; the singers seem rather too cramped up, and it's hard not to wish for something more lavish. Jean Kalman's atmospheric lighting comes to the staging's rescue at various points, not least in the eerily-lit duel scene, but there's very little in the way of additional settings.
In his favour, Carsen seems quite strong on Personenregie. Clearly the singers have worked hard on exploring the motivation for their actions and there's a detailed approach to most of the acting, with odd blips such as Fleming's occasional lack of focus during the Letter Scene being far outweighed by the brilliant imagination of others. A fifteen-minute feature gives an unusually broad taste of different aspects of music and staging rehearsals as well as short interviews with the four principal cast members and the conductor. The most revealing of these for me is the stage rehearsal of the final scene, in which Fleming and Hvorostovsky agree that he will be genuinely rough with her -‘otherwise it won't be real and the audience will sense it' says Fleming. The duet before the duel is poignant enough, but the two highlights are unquestionably Onegin's aria at the end of Act I (when he rebuts Tatiana's declaration of love) and the closing duet (when she rebuts his). The sparks fly between the two main singers in these scenes, which are as harrowing as anything you'll see in the opera house today.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky's pre-eminence in the role of Onegin seems firmly established (or perhaps just reiterated) by this DVD, in which his performance is well nigh impeccable. He has the ideal hauteur for this role and it seems to lie in the most comfortable, rich part of his voice. His aria in Act I and his arioso in Act III contrast the two characteristics he brings to the piece: beautiful lyricism in the first and intense drama in the second. Looking handsome and relaxed and benefiting from singing in his own language, Hvorostovsky is captured at his best and can probably not be matched in this role by anyone in the world today.
Renée Fleming may not be the most Russian-sounding soprano ever to have lived, but I feel unashamedly wowed by her highly emotional and vocally ravishing performance as Tatiana. I don't particularly like her hairstyle in the first act because it doesn't quite suggest the teenage girl, but Fleming still makes a huge effort to make a transition between girlishness in Act I and dignity in Act III, which pays off. The singing is truly remarkable in places: while some will feel that as a non-Russian speaker she does not quite respond to each word with the bite and nuance of, say, Galina Vishnevskaya, but her vocal control and beauty of sound are awe-inspiring. This is most apparent in the Letter Scene, where occasionally she doesn't seem motivated by the words but all is forgiven thanks to the remarkable dynamic shadings and richness of sound. As for the final confrontation with Onegin, when she ends up on her knees in anguish: she is just stupendous.
A surprise success, too, from Ramón Vargas, leaving behind his normal Italian and French Romantic repertoire and bringing depth of emotion and formidable vocal reserves to the role of Lenski. The Latin lyricism is mixed with a welcome physical restraint, never marred by exaggerated stock operatic gestures. Vargas plays Lenski as a bespectacled, decent man, and it's not difficult to imagine him considering it a point of honour to challenge Onegin to the duel after his friend has flirted with Olga, his betrothed. The latter is played by Elena Zaremba, whose Russian voice is authentic but a little harsh for my taste. I also find her unconvincing as Tatiana's younger sister, but her spirited delivery of the text is well up to the standard of the other principals.
Sergei Aleksashkin is a superlative Prince Gremin - I like the fact that his characterisation is a little more virile and three-dimensional than some singers achieve in this role – but Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is underwhelming as Triquet, and Svetlana Volkova's Madame Larina and Larisa Shevchenko's Filippyevna are rather limited in voice and acting ability, neither really hitting their stride.
The cornerstone of the recording is Valery Gergiev, whose reading of the score mixes knowledge and imagination. The former quality is shown in the footage of the orchestral rehearsal of the Introduction to Act I, in which Gergiev keeps stopping the Met Orchestra and asking them to reproduce the minute dynamic contrasts prescribed by Tchaikovsky in the score; the latter quality shows through in the daring but effective tempo changes in the Letter monologue, in which he makes Fleming slow right down but manages to maintain the gently-erotic tension. The orchestra plays with their customary flair, and one can see the hand of Gergiev in the wonderfully gritty, raw-sounding dance episodes.
No live performance is ever perfect but at times this one goes beyond perfection, to that place where opera and life almost merge. Glittering contributions from Fleming, Hvorostovsky and Gergiev make this essential viewing.
Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is available now.
Read our review of Renee Fleming in Decca's recent DVD of La traviata here.
Read our review of Renee Fleming in Covent Garden's recent performance of Thais here.