Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin has been subjected to the same directional quirks and aberrations that used to be reserved almost exclusively for the works of Wagner. There was Andrea Breth’s wandering-in-the-wheat production in Salzburg, Michał Znaniecki’s swimming pool staging in Bilbao; Kasper Holten’s doubling dancing duo for Covent Garden and perhaps the most outrageous of all, Krzysztow Warlikowski’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Onegin in Munich which outraged the good Catholic burghers of Bayern. Continuing this directional legacy, German theatre director Falk Richter’s staging offers no new insights but a great deal of snow.

Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper (2013)
Anna Netrebko (Tatyana)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper (2013)
First seen in Vienna in 2009, this production transplants Madame Larina’s estate near St Petersburg to remote Siberia, despite Martin Kraemer’s costuming looking more like Cabo St Lucas. Whilst stage designer Katrin Hoffmann’s opening imagery of heavily falling snow mirrored Onegin’s psychological frigidity, it contradicted the text which refers to the end of the harvest, not the winter solstice. Overuse caused the conceit to lose all impact – five of the seven scenes had snow falling. Only the ballrooms escape the blizzard but then Prince Gremin doesn’t get a ballroom or even a palace, just a set of enormous steps leading to a gigantic mausoleum-like edifice. Tatyana’s bedroom is a rectangular see-through igloo and Madame Larina’s banquet table an ice-bar which should have been sponsored by Smirnoff.

As Prince Gremin, veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto made much of his “Ljubvi vse vozrasty pokorny” aria but the voice is not what it once was and the low G flats on “stšastje” lacked projection and resonance.

Dmitry Korchak sang the doomed Lensky with boyish charm and commendable diction. This is a warm, forward-placed lyric tenor voice, especially good above the stave. His “Ja ljublju vas Olga” outburst was suitably passionate and the beginning of the “V vašem dome!” ensemble in Act II displayed a fine cantilena. “Kuda, kuda” was more successful when singing forte than mezza-voce with a particularly impressive top A flat on “Želannyj drug”.

Continuing the production’s list of celebrated Onegins such as Peter Mattei, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Mariusz Kwiecień, Christopher Maltman had several hard acts to follow. Perhaps there was too much side-mouth snarling and repetitive arm gesturing to make the performance anything more than one-dimensional but there was also little vocal nuance. His projection however, especially in the upper register, was formidable and “Kogda by žizn’ domašnim krugom”, as Onegin rejects Tatyana, was sung with requisite legato and an agreeable, if slightly metallic timbre, despite the overly fast tempo. The concluding piano high F on “nežnej” was especially pleasing.

Anna Netrebko (Tatyana) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper (2013)
Anna Netrebko (Tatyana)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper (2013)
The most anticipated performance of the evening was that of international diva assoluta Anna Netrebko. She told Opera News that Tatyana “is not difficult for me to sing at all… there is not much melody”. One wonders if Tchaikovsky would agree.

Diction and word colouring were both there as well as remarkable technical prowess but the performance was detached and unmoving, at least in the first two acts. Perhaps she was hampered by poor makeup and a ridiculous ponytail wig. Or possibly the lovelorn provincial ingénue is just too remote from the singer’s glamorous persona. She was dramatically much more convincing as an exceptionally imperious Princess Gremina in Act III and not surprisingly, gave her best singing in the final scene.

In comparison, the letter aria lacked any real warmth or semblance of guileless infatuation. At the end of this scene, “Ja togda molože” showed the formidable strength of Netrebko’s upper register and the powerful fff B natural on “proŝaj” and final A flat on “vverjaju!” were rock solid. There were intonation problems during the Act II concertante section. 

The Staatoper orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s ravishing score with its customary élan, with especially subtle performances from the woodwinds, such as the solo clarinet in Lensky's aria and the cheeky scale passage exchange between flute, oboe and clarinet during Larina and Filipjewna’s duet. Apart from one small glitch, the horns were also impressive and the legendary Vienna strings as mellifluous as ever.

Conductor Patrick Lange seemed to think the complex score was a speed trial. Tempi were consistently rushed and there was precious little gentle rubato or apposite portamento.

Clearly the star of the evening was Netrebko, for better or worse. She once remarked, “With Tatyana it may take years and years… to fill the emotions and colours that I want”. No doubt her adoring Viennese public will be happy to wait.