Opera on film does not get much better than this. Conductor Valery Gergiev is a master of this repertoire and he extracts thrilling performances from both orchestra and cast. Renée Fleming is very moving during Tatiana's letter song although this is an almost unbearable scene to watch. When I see this opera live I want to jump out of my seat and shout "Don't write it, Tatiana" and "No, don't post it". Renée Fleming's acting, as opposed to singing, ability is at its best in the scene immediately after this when she visibly crumbles at Onegin's arrogant response to the letter. Dmitry Hvorostovky is arrogance personified as Onegin. I also enjoyed the authentically Russian Olga of the throaty mezzo Elena Zaremba. The versatile Tenor Ramón Vargos is her naïve lover Lenski. As Prince Gremin, Segei Alexashkin's wistful aria on love in old age gets a wild response from the audience.
The production is beautifully minimalist using a bare stage, covered in autumn leaves for the first scene. There are few props apart from a few chairs for the ballroom scenes. Yet the production successfully evokes the contrast between rural Russian life, with Tchaikovsky using folksy themes, and the grandeur of St Petersburg. This is a theme that many of us perhaps know from Chekov's plays although Tchaikovsky based this opera on a verse novel by Pushkin.
There are many intelligent touches from stage director Peter McClintock.. I liked the elision between the duel scene and the St Petersburg ball, so that Onegin goes straight from killing his friend, Lenski in a duel to the ball several years later. The most interesting idea, though, is to have Tatiana's letter passing backwards and forwards between her and Onegin. During the overture we see a sadder and wiser Onegin reading Tatiana's letter and regretting what could have been. During the opera, she sends him the letter but he gives it back to her with a brisk "learn to control yourself". Later, when she is Princess Gremin we see her rereading her letter before Onegin bursts in to declare his love for her. Finally, and this stretches one's credulity slightly, she leaves the letter on the chair as she walks out on him.So the opera ends as it begins with Onegin reading the letter. And in choosing her elderly husband over her young lover, Tatiana echoes the song of the old ladies in the opening scene: that heaven sends us habits in place of happiness.
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