The Metropolitan Opera's production of Eugene Onegin is handsome, even though it is exceptionally spare. There are no visual distractions, so the viewer's attention is drawn all the more intensely to the characters -- their inner lives and their interactions -- and that's entirely appropriate in an opera in which the greatest drama lies in the characters' emotional states. Michael Levine's costumes are realistic, elegant for the principals and rustic for the servants and peasants, but his set is minimal, almost to the point of being nonexistent. Except for the props absolutely essential for the action -- a bed, a table, a row of chairs -- the stage is empty. Except for the leaves. In the first act, sometimes the stage is absolutely covered by crimson autumn leaves, and sometimes the air is filled with them as they drift down. They create a striking image, and their absence in the second and third acts leaves something of a visual void, which perhaps is an intentional metaphor for the gloom that has now descended on all the characters. Levine's other overarching image is the sky, created by an immense cyclorama across the back of the stage, which is lit to set the tone for each scene. The clear, cobalt blue night sky over Tatiana as she pours out her heart on paper is dreamily romantic, and the winter sun rising on Lensky's body after the duel is chilling in its starkness.
Robert Carsen's production is notable for its realism and attention to historical detail. The many small touches -- Filippyevna having to clear off a pile of clothes to make room for Tatiana to sit at her desk, Tatiana's careful folding and sealing of the letter, Onegin nonchalantly eating a bowl of sorbet as Lensky furiously rails against him, the grim ritual preceding the duel -- all add immeasurably to the effectiveness and depth of the production. Carsen is fortunate to have singers who are also fine actors, who can convincingly express the emotions that drive the drama. In both appearance and demeanor, Renée Fleming is completely engaging as a very young, starry-eyed Tatiana. The Letter Scene is all the more poignant because Fleming's Tatiana is so obviously an impetuous adolescent, a dramatic contrast to her maturity and poise in the last act. Dmitri Hvorostovsky ideally embodies Onegin as a devastatingly handsome, self-absorbed cad. Ramón Vargas (whose look here makes him a dead ringer for Franz Schubert) is believably touchy and hypersensitive. The other cast members are just fine dramatically, but the three leads stand out for the exceptional naturalism of their performances. Carsen doesn't seem to know quite what to do with the chorus; in the first scene, the galumphing of the peasants is particularly awkward.
Musically, the production is a triumph, largely due to the outstanding performance of the three principals. Fleming is vocally radiant in the first act, and by the last act, her voice is burnished with grief. Her Letter Scene is especially memorable for her lustrous tone and the emotional range she conveys vocally, from anxious timidity to wild abandon. It's easy to see why Onegin is a signature role for Hvorostovsky; his rounded, resonant baritone easily fills the house. Vargas has a ringing, passionate tenor that gives Lensky a genuinely heroic quality. The playing of the orchestra, under Valery Gergiev, also accounts for the power of the performance; the playing has all the sweep and grandeur that the score requires, as well as the intimacy. The dramatic and musical values of this strong production make it one that should be of interest to any opera lover.