Putin says Tchaikovsky is being canceled. The Met Opera disagrees.

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Putin says Tchaikovsky is being canceled. The Met Opera disagrees.
Banners forming the Ukrainian flag are stretched across the travertine exterior of the Metropolitan Opera, bathed in blue and yellow floodlights, during a benefit concert in New York, Monday, March 14, 2022. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- Opera, once divvied into local companies of singers mostly from the same country, blossomed with the advent of air travel into a fully international art form. French, German and Italian opera houses began to host artists from around the world.

That has become easy to take for granted. But in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month ago, it seems remarkable — almost heroic — for the Metropolitan Opera to be putting on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” with a cast that is Russian, Ukrainian, American, French Armenian, Polish and Estonian. (And that is just the featured players.)

The craft and care being put into this revival of one of Russia’s greatest cultural exports dispels the cynical allegation that the West is on a canceling frenzy. “The names of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff are being removed from playbills,” President Vladimir Putin of Russia said on television Friday.

Never mind that “Eugene Onegin” opened at the Met that evening, as the New York Philharmonic was playing Dmitri Shostakovich across the street. And later this week the Philharmonic will perform three concerts of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev, with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and yet more Rachmaninoff the week after. As with so many cancel-culture narratives, this one is about fostering a sense of grievance, not about the facts.

But however distorted, Putin’s comments — and his war — were impossible to forget Friday. And as with so much Russian opera at the Met, it was hard to watch this performance without thinking of conductor Valery Gergiev, so closely identified with this repertory in New York and on the podium for the premiere of Deborah Warner’s drab “Onegin” staging when it opened the season in 2013.

Even then, Gergiev faced protests for his ties to Putin — as did star soprano Anna Netrebko, the house’s ruling prima donna, who sang Tatiana. Now both of their international careers are in shambles, and it seems unlikely that either will ever again appear at the Met because they refused to distance themselves from the Russian president; Gergiev appeared with Putin on Friday by video link.

As they came to mind during “Onegin,” it was with feelings of anger, sadness and disappointment, as well as with memories — of Gergiev’s sweaty intensity at his best and Netrebko’s creamy generosity of tone and presence at hers.

The 2013 performances, though, were not the finest moment for either. On Friday soprano Ailyn Pérez, singing Tatiana for the first time, made a more memorable impression in the part than her predecessor had.

Pérez’s voice is less sumptuous than Netrebko’s, but it is more convincingly girlish, appropriate for a character in her midteens. She did not overplay Tatiana’s bookish shyness or her anxious crush on Onegin — but made those qualities audible in the tightly vibrating, almost quivering shimmer of her high notes and the soft-grain modesty of her lower range. In the final act, set some years after the first two, her sound was hardened just enough to convey disillusioned womanhood.

While Netrebko had trouble making her dense voice float, Pérez sometimes lacked the tonal swell to fill out the grand lines in what is a heavier sing than the lyric roles — like Mimì in “La Bohème” and Micaëla in “Carmen” — for which she has been best known at the Met. So the great Letter Scene was more tender than ecstatic, and Tatiana’s final confrontation with Onegin was not quite conquered. But as in her solo turn in the Met’s performance of GiuseppeVerdi’s Requiem in the fall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, her urgency and commitment to the text helped compensate for any lack of plushness.

The orchestra needs to feed the intensity in this opera, and under James Gaffigan the stakes felt low. Missing was the weighty ferocity of the end of the first scene in Act 2, and the wild currents in the ensemble as the Letter Scene reaches its climax. Sometimes, as in a Polonaise with panache at the start of the Act 3 ball, the briskness was right; sometimes it felt spirited but faceless, simply too lightweight.

The sound had been lusher and silkier the previous Saturday, when Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which runs through May 7, was revived at the company, conducted by Alexander Soddy. As in “Onegin” (through April 14) the leading lady was singing her role for the first time — and as with Pérez’s Tatiana, Butterfly is soprano Eleonora Buratto’s entry into heavier parts at the Met; she will sing Elisabetta in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” there this fall.

And like Pérez, Buratto was convincing as a teenager, her acting reserved and her tone gentle. She started “Un bel dì,” Butterfly’s great outpouring of illusory hopes, not like she was embarking on a grand aria, but offhand, flowing naturally out of the conversation. And after the immense challenge of that number, her voice seemed to relax, growing broader and bolder.

By “Addio, fiorito asil,” near the end, tenor Brian Jagde’s voice as the caddish Pinkerton had filled out below his top notes, secure and burnished from the beginning; Elizabeth DeShong reprised her powerfully sung Suzuki.

In “Onegin,” Pérez was joined by baritone Igor Golovatenko, his tone steady and strong, as Onegin. Tenor Piotr Beczala was ardent yet elegant as the doomed Lenski; veterans Elena Zaremba and Larissa Diadkova were piquant in small roles.

Vladyslav Buialskyi, the young Ukrainian bass-baritone who has twice led the Met’s company in his country’s national anthem since the war began, sang the Captain. The role has just a few short lines. But this month Buialskyi has been as indelible as any artist on the Met’s roster.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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