Reached in Paris, the day after performing in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” at l’Opéra national de Paris, celebrated Siberian-born baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky talked about one of his signature roles — the title character in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” — and the Metropolitan Opera production he starred in that will be presented by GREAT PERFORMANCES
GREAT PERFORMANCES: What draws you to the title character of “Eugene Onegin”? Is he a difficult character to portray?
Dmitri Hvorostovsky: This personage is not easy to understand, even for someone who has been doing this role for decades. The character created by Pushkin in literature is very complex. In the opera, he appears slightly different, with an infusion of Tchaikovsky’s own personality and attitude that changes [Onegin] a little bit
He is definitely not the bad guy, which is how he is portrayed often in the West. He is a product of his time, very cynical, but highly educated, refusing to be active. There are a lot of question marks at the end of the opera. Who will this young man become? Potentially, he could become a revolutionist, a member of the avant-garde Decembrist movement. Will it be easier for him to commit suicide because of his unlucky love? Or will he become someone who would do something for society? Will he start writing? Or become a politician and fight against the routine of government structures?
Onegin is from the beginning of the 19th century, but he is also a common figure in our time. So each time there is a new production, we try to find out who Onegin is. The easiest thing to say is that he is a bad guy because he turned down Tatiana, and gets what he deserves when, years later, he suddenly falls in love with her — and she turns him down. But this is not true. He is a much more profound guy
GP: Do you need to be a Russian singer to get the maximum out of this opera?
DH: I’ve been outside of Russia for many years, so I’ve become a foreigner myself. I’ve seen more of an international conception of this opera. My own conception of many things has been changed a great deal because I have changed over the years. My life and professional experiences have taught me a lot more than I knew when I first did this opera
GP: It has been said by more than one observer that you were born to sing Onegin, that the role suits your voice perfectly. What were your feelings about the music when you first sang it?
DH: Tchaikovsky wrote nothing easy for a musician — singers, instrumentalists, everyone would complain about the difficulties Tchaikovsky wrote. He had no pity on singers. Only mature singers can really handle it. But when I performed Onegin for the first time, I felt like it was a piece of cake because I was a student, and I felt I would conquer the world with incredible speed and velocity
Then I started to perform the role abroad and became slightly frustrated with the conceptions of stage directors who had not treated one of my favorite personages with all the respect it deserves. I put myself into a difficult position trying to fight it, being young and quite arrogant. One of my first appearances as Onegin was in Paris in 1993. I fought with all my strength and all my knowledge against the stage director. I had a group of Russian singers supporting me. Eventually, though, we did the production and it was nicely done. But ever since, I lost the respect of that director; he has always refused to hire me. He still doesn’t like me, even now
After doing the role many times, I found I could not be satisfied with myself as an actor or a musician. I was always looking for the ideal Tatiana, the ideal conductor, and the ideal production. I couldn’t find that balance, so I gave up the role for a number of years
GP: Why have you felt confident to perform this work again, and at the Metropolitan Opera?
DH: One of the reasons I came back to “Onegin,” if not the main reason, was my good friend Renée Fleming
We first did it in 2000, in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall. It struck me then that I had actually found the ideal Tatiana. I knew she could refresh my performance of Onegin. She seems quite Slavonic to me. I guess she has some Slavonic blood in her. The first time I heard her sing Tatiana, she was vibrating the right kind of strength in her heart and soul. It touched me right away. Finally, we got together on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and did a very, very beautiful production that has been seen at movie theaters and can now be seen on television. I am still feeling very satisfied about this. To do “Onegin” with Renée, with [tenor] Ramón [Vargas], and with [conductor] Valery [Gergiev] in one of my favorite theaters in the world — the Metropolitan is like family to me — has been wonderful. I’m now very keen to do this opera as many times as I can, but I’m probably becoming too mature, too old for Onegin. [Hvorostovsky is 44; the character of Onegin is in his early 20s.]
GP: What do you like best about working with Renée Fleming?
DH: She’s very unpredictable as an artist. Each time I sing with her it is surprising. She always tries to challenge herself, to take risks. She is an amazing artist. I am very proud to sing with her. She has a big, powerful, loving heart that she performs from. And she has one of the most perfect techniques among sopranos of our time. I’m sure she can do anything she wants to
GP: The other big star of the Met’s “Onegin” is Ramón Vargas as Lenski. What are your thoughts about his performance?
DH: Ramon is so touching, so amazing. This is another beautiful performance that matches the character. He is a very vulnerable Lenski, a typical poet — even visually. He reminds me of one of the historic persons that Pushkin knew himself. Ramon is also an absolutely beautiful musician. The way he sings Lenski really pleases me a great deal
GP: You used the word “unpredictable” when discussing Renée Fleming. It’s a word that critics often use to describe Valery Gergiev’s conducting. Does that make things difficult for you?
DH: Valery is always very easy to work with. He makes you feel so comfortable and secure. He’s a superhuman to me. I’ve known him for many years and consider him to be a dear friend. I have so much respect for him, the way he can pull the heartstrings in any music he conducts. He is not just surprising in performance; the profundity of any performance he conducts is also so incredible. Anything we do together feels like a piece of cake. He always welcomes any ideas I can create. He always follows me. Believe me, to have such a conductor, it encourages you
GP: You have enjoyed particular success in Italian repertoire as well as Russian. Will that continue to be a big part of your career?
DH: I’m still doing a lot of Verdi, still enjoying it. I’m so happy, like yesterday [April 10] here [Paris Opera], with the opening of “Simon Boccanegra,” probably the best role ever written for [a] baritone. It is such a pleasure and privilege to do this role. I will be doing it at the Met in a few yearsí time
GP: Are there other Verdi roles you plan to add to your repertoire?
DH: I haven’t done Iago or Macbeth yet, but probably will soon
GP: What about other Italian composers, from Rossini to Puccini?
DH: I used to do [Rossini's] “Barbiere [di Siviglia].” I mentioned it to [Metropolitan Opera general manager] Peter Gelb, and he just raised his eyebrows. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I just changed the subject. A lot of people have been sitting on my shoulders trying to persuade me to do Scarpia [in Puccini's "Tosca"], but I think that will have to wait
GP: Are there other operas you particularly want to tackle?
DH: I’m not dying to do anything, but I’m trying to enlarge my repertoire. I also want to expand my activity
GP: Do you mean outside of opera?
DH: I’m curious to do something else, probably a movie — maybe an action movie, with no singing [laughter]. And I’m curious to perform different types of music, like classic pop. But anything like this needs to be thought through
GP: Meanwhile, how are you enjoying your career?
DH: My life is very beautiful, very exciting, and quite lucky. It is the biggest pleasure in the world to perform for a crowd that listens to your every breath. What can be better than this?
Interview by Tim Smith for GREAT PERFORMANCES Online conducted in April 2007.