Drawn from Pushkin's classic, the opera tightly focuses on the story of Tatiana, a naive young girl who declares her love for a dashing rake (Onegin) who rejects her overtures. His arrogance surfaces leads to flirting with his best friend's fiancée and then to killing him in a duel. Plagued by remorse, a superficially reformed but still impossibly self-centered Onegin meets Tatiana at a ball, but now the childish country bumpkin is the glamorous wife of a Prince. He declares his love but she rejects him and leaves him alone, a solitary, tragic figure.
Renée Fleming's Tatiana is a triumph, her gorgeous soprano voice, intense acting and precise characterization make the complex young woman come alive. Her "Letter Scene," in which the singer must reveal the innermost thoughts of a confused soul, is as good as it gets, as Fleming fully reveals the young woman's joyous hopes of requited love and also her fears of rejection. In the final act, she's still attracted to the dashing Onegin but resolved to preserve her marriage. In the title role, Dmitri Hvorostovsky is her equal; his firm baritone fits the music like a velvet glove and his acting matches Fleming's in its intensity. He's especially fine in his last-act monologue, bursting with despair and passion. Tchaikovsky gave the work's most beautiful arias to Lenski, Onegin's friend. Ramon Vargas' mellifluous tenor is well-suited to the lyricism of Lenski's Act One love aria and to the poignant aria before his duel with Onegin. Lenski's anger at his friend in the ball scene is palpably menacing. As Olga, Tatiana's high-spirited sister and Lenski's fiancée, Elena Zaremba is fully up to the rest of the cast, her rich mezzo and pointed phrasing a strong point. Sergei Aleksaskin's Prince Gremin is a dignified presence, Larisa Schevchenko as Tatiana's old nurse is convincing, and the smaller roles are well sung and acted. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is not only in excellent voice in the beautiful aria of Triquet, Tatiana's French tutor, but manages to invest his song with an apt touch of parody as well. Valery Gergiev's conducting is a major asset, and the MET Orchestra is in terrific form, with special kudos due to the soulful clarinet solos that are so important in the musical texture.
Producer Robert Carson imbues the work with Romantic glow and Michael Levine's spare sets are far more effective than one might think. The stage is strewn with leaves and framed by textured rods doing duty as birch trees in Act One; the ball scene similarly framed by a rectangle of chairs and side tables, both sets analogues for the character's imprisonment in their unbridled emotions. Video director Brian Large keeps his cameras well-focused on the action, to complete an Onegin that's the DVD version to get. --Dan Davis