In the Salzburg Festival's operatic lineup this year is Tchaikovsky's most famous and best work for the stage: "Eugene Onegin." The cast features Anna Samuil, a young Russian soprano, portraying Tatiana. This is a starmaking moment for her. All in attendance will be able to say, "I was there when Samuil established herself as a major artistic force."
Sure, she has gotten around, appearing in big houses, including La Scala and the Met. But she has now triumphed in a very bright international spotlight. And she has done so in the touchstone soprano role of her native repertory.
On Wednesday night, she displayed a beautiful, darkish, interesting, penetrating voice. From beginning to end, she was utterly secure, singing without apparent effort. She did not sing one bad note. And her musical and dramatic instincts were faultless. Rossini (or someone) famously said that opera required "Voice, voice, and voice." True but it also requires intelligence, and Ms. Samuil has that, along with much else, in spades.
The superstar Anna Netrebko has canceled her performances thisyear, pleadinglaryngitis. Many people here including administration are skeptical of her plea, and a scandal has been created. In any case, the festival is not without a Russian soprano named Anna.
The conductor for "Onegin" is Daniel Barenboim, the famed Argentinean-born musician. I have frequently written of his "muscular lyricism," or "lyrical muscularity" and we heard that throughout the opera on Wednesday night. Sometimes, Mr. Barenboim was incisive and thrilling; at other times, he was rough and indifferent. Some sections of the score jumped off the page; other sections lay dead on it. Mr. Barenboim was a mixed bag on this occasion.
In Act I, particularly, Mr. Barenboim let the orchestra cover the singers including the chorus. This was an odd mistake, for so experienced a musician. And you could quarrel with various decisions: For example, I found the Letter Scene too slow, too extended. But he is a musical guy, no doubt, and he makes you pay attention.
The orchestra the Vienna Philharmonic could have passed for Russian: They played with the appropriate growl, grain, and soul. They were not error-free, dropping the ball here and there. Their pizzicatos can be as ragged as any other orchestra's. And their principal horn can flub, too. But they were still the Vienna Philharmonic. At evening's end, Mr. Barenboim had them appear onstage, to receive their applause. This is exceedingly rare.
In the title role was the Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. He was a suave, personable Onegin (in his Joe Cool shades). Mr. Mattei seems to be suave and personable in whatever role he tries. And he is the same in recital. On Wednesday night, his singing was ultrasmooth, and he floated one high F that was almost feminine in its beauty. In the final scene, he could have used more vocal oomph more strength. But he acquitted himself honorably.
The tenor portraying Lenski was Joseph Kaiser, a Canadian, who, like Mr. Mattei, is very, very smooth. There are few lumps in his vocal porridge. He had a little trouble on this occasion, but mainly he was in a groove, and Lenski's big aria had proper plangency.
Prince Gremin? He was Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, long a Salzburg favorite. In a public interview with me the day before, Mr. Furlanetto called Gremin the best small role for bass in opera: "You arrive at the opera house during the second intermission. You change into your costume. You sing some recitative, you sing the best aria in the opera, and you sing some more recitative. You get to keep the girl, which is rare for a bass. Then you go home."
Gremin's aria was a little slow and mannered on Wednesday night overmilked, you might say. But Mr. Furlanetto's voice was a glowing wonder, as always, and he deserved the ecstatic ovations he received.
Other singers did not disappoint. The mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova was steady and assured as Olga. An older mezzo-soprano, Emma Sarkissian, was touching as the Nurse. And the tenor Ryland Davies handled the odd role of Triquet with the right peculiarity.
As for the production, it comes from Andrea Berth, a German director. The opera opens with a man in a trenchcoat and fedora sitting in front of a video monitor. This will happen again. Is the man a security guard at the Larinas' estate? I don't know. The production contains various film-noir touches. And the stage is dominated by one of those giant lazy Susans, turning around, showing different compartments, or wedges.
Tatiana writes her letter on a typewriter. What young girl wouldn't compose her first love letter on a typewriter? The Nurse lies down in what appears her own grave. A man appearing to be a Red Army officer physically attacks Triquet at the name-day party. And there is a violent sexual episode, violent sexual episodes being almost de rigueur in productions here. Directors would not want to lose their street cred.
Would Tchaikovsky or Pushkin recognize or approve this "Onegin"? That is a square indeed, reactionary question.