NEW YORK — "Eugene Onegin," as performed by the Metropolitan, is very old-fashioned opera. There is no stylization here, no abstraction, no symbolism, no searching for psychological or sociological subtexts.
Unaffected by the manners and/or pretensions of modern theatricality, the Met plays Tchaikovsky's intimate, ultra-romantic masterpiece essentially as it must have been played at the Bolshoi in 1881. The New Yorkers take no liberties.
That does not mean, of course, that they muster a persuasive re-creation of an ancient historical model, or that, in this context, they can do much honor to the drama of Pushkin. To the contrary, the Met "Onegin" functions as an act of dusty homage to the unimaginative museum-opera conventions of the 1950s.
When first seen 27 years ago, it was staged in polite, traditional tones by the then-conservative Peter Brook. It was dressed in pretty, flimsy-pastel picture-book sets by Rolf Gerard that tended to trivialize both the authentic Russian locales and the intrinsic Russian passions.
Brook has long been gone, but the sets linger on. At least they don't get in the way. Though the canvas fields and woods and ballrooms have faded a bit over the years, they still define time and place neatly enough. Saturday afternoon, they provided an unobtrusive framework for an action scheme resourcefully arranged by Bodo Igesz and sensitively lit by Gil Wechsler.
The visual elements in this "Onegin" are, at best, inoffensive. The musical elements, however, are compelling. The decisive force emanates from the pit, where Neeme Jarvi, the Estonian conductor who will make his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut this week, dares impose the slowest of slow tempos on the sprawling music drama.
At first, his measured pace threatens to make everything seem exaggeratedly lyric and excessively languid. Then one realizes that Jarvi is dealing with pathos on a vast emotional scale.
This majestic, leisurely interpretive scheme permits him, and his singers, to shape phrases with optimum eloquence, to linger over telling nuances, to savor the most subtle dynamic distinctions. For all his deliberate motion, Jarvi sustains unflagging finesse and tension. It is a considerable, poetic achievement.
Luckily, most of his singers can savor the inherent expressive breadth. Leo Nucci, the young Italian baritone who sang Ford in Giulini's Los Angeles "Falstaff," leads the cast as an aristocratic, intelligent, bel-canto Onegin, slender in figure and tone, dignified in demeanor, urgent in delivery.
The sweet-voiced Russian tenor Misha Raitzin, who has the unenviable task of replacing Nicolai Gedda as Lensky, floats a delicate, magical, heartbreaking wisp of legato tone in the great second-act quintet and in his aria of renunciation. Paul Plishka bathes the rhetoric of Prince Gremin's wonderful aria in rolling-basso opulence. Andrea Velis sings the couplets of old Monsieur Triquet delicately, where possible, and avoids comic caricature.
Apart from the gently characterized, warmly vocalized Filippyevna of Lili Chookasian, the women are less successful. Kay Griffel offers a tasteful but slightly matronly and bland Tatiana. Isola Jones is a jarringly sultry, somewhat harsh-sounding Olga.
The hard-working Met chorus, trained by David Stivender, functions here as if on automatic pilot. Norbert Vesak's dance divertissements suggest that members of the Imperial Ballet infiltrated both Madame Larina's farm and Prince Gremin's party.
The opera is sung, incidentally, in a language identified in the program as Russian.