Anna Netrebko in <I>Eugene Onegin</I>.
Anna Netrebko in Eugene Onegin.
(© Ken Howard/Met Opera)

"We're proud to present Russia's great gay composer," reads a hastily inserted program note from General Manager Peter Gelb explaining why, despite calls from protestors outside the opera house and over 9,000 online petitioners, the Metropolitan Opera would not be dedicating this performance to LGBT Russians. "That is a message, in itself." Indeed, this new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin from Testament of Mary collaborators Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw packs enough of a socio-political punch on its own merits. An official dedication would feel superfluous: The opera says everything.

Based on the eponymous verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin is the story of Tatiana (Anna Netrebko), the shy and bookish daughter of Madame Larina (Elena Zaremba), a landowning widow in the Russian countryside. Tatiana is enthralled by her romantic novels and spends most of her time hanging around the Larina estate. Her younger sister, Olga (Oksana Volkova), is already engaged to be married to the dashing Lenski (Piotr Beczala), a fact that has put Tatiana on the fast track to spinsterhood. When Lenski brings around his best buddy, the young heir and playboy Eugene Onegin (Mariusz Kwiecien), to sneer at the pastoral quaintness of the Larina estate, Tatiana thinks that she might have fallen into the plot of one of her romantic novels. You know the ones...the 19th century equivalents of modern-day rom-coms, in which the arrival of an eccentric jerk naturally portends "happily ever after."

It's not to be, however: Onegin rebuffs her advance, warning that he will guard her heart more carefully before leaving her with a patronizing kiss. Joke's on him, though: By Act 3 Tatiana is married to the wealthy and respected Prince Gremin (Alexei Tanovitski). She has leapfrogged Onegin in social status and with a man who worships her, no less. Naturally, this is the moment Onegin realizes that he truly does love Tatiana. Too late! Success is the best revenge.

Between those two acts, there's the messy second act, in which Lenski challenges Onegin to a duel (at Tatiana's name-day party!) after Onegin dances with Olga for too long. Onegin shoots his best friend dead rather than say sorry. This should be the most exciting part of the opera because, you know, angry men and guns. Still, I couldn't help but sympathize with Tatiana at the end of that act's first scene: As the entire chorus crowds around the two alpha males to watch them brawl like bulls in a pen, she very deliberately walks the other way.

Netrebko's Tatiana is a revelation. A role that could easily devolve into a meek caricature of "traditional" femininity is anything but in her capable hands and powerful voice. We're still a long way off from Lydia Litvyak, but in the context of the early 19th century, she's as close to a self-made woman as we're likely to get. Even during Tatiana's famous letter scene, in which she stays up all night writing a note confessing her love to Onegin (this 15-minute solo is the vocal equivalent of a marathon), she seems to instinctively know that what she is doing is ridiculous and futile. From that point on, we see a much wiser, albeit colder Tatiana.

That's not to say that Netrebko's Tatiana is devoid of feeling; she's just better at controlling her emotions than the sloppy men onstage: Gremin is a lovesick puppy, Lenski a jealous mess, Onegin a philandering-sociopath-turned-sad-sack-alcoholic. Kwiecien makes a particularly good show of this, pouring himself glass after glass of champagne and collapsing on the floor in a heap of tears during the third act. What a drama queen.

All of this is undoubtedly helped along by Tchaikovsky's lush score. From the foreboding woodwinds of Olga and Tatiana's haunting opening duet to the brassy magnificence of Tatiana's final, stinging rejection of Onegin, conductor Valery Gergiev plays up the drama. His sinuous hands typically aquiver, he simultaneously holds the dynamics in check so as to never overpower the singers. The result is a satisfying balance that loses none of Tchaikovsky's symphonic sweep.

Similarly, Shaw and Warner have crafted a modest production by Met standards. OK, so there are still giant period sets (gorgeous work by Tom Pye), eerily realistic lighting (Jean Kalman), and a cast of hundreds. Still, this directing duo has created an Onegin that is evocative of of a specific time and place (more late 19th century than early), focused in its message yet unobtrusive enough to give the cast ample room to breathe.

The only major misfire is the second-act costumes (Chloe Obolensky in her Met debut). Although Tatiana is a shy and unassuming girl, it seems unwise to put her in a dress that causes her to literally blend in with the wallpaper, especially in a house with 3,800 seats. Also, the funerary colors of the two male leads make it difficult to distinguish them from the chorus, even during their catfight. Why not give a dandy like Onegin a jaunty cravat, at the very least? Beyond that bizarre oversight, the design lives up to the grand operatic form we expect from the Met.

Eugene Onegin ends with Tatiana telling Onegin that they can never see each other again. She has made her choice, and she is staying faithful to Gremin. She leaves Onegin with one final lip-lock. This aggressive bit of tonsil hockey, when performed by Netrebko, is the kiss of death for the patriarchy, an institution that still holds sway over Russia in the form of an increasingly pathetic shirtless wonder. This insecure machismo is the true source of Russia's persecution of sexual minorities. Here at least, it is all brought to a crashing halt by a sister who's doing it for herself. With that in mind, perhaps the jailed feminist punk band Pussy Riot would have been a more appropriate subject for dedication.