For fans of the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the return of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” to the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday was a bittersweet occasion. He had been scheduled to sing the title role, one of his signatures. But in December Mr. Hvorostovsky, who has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer, announced that he would have to withdraw from staged performances for the foreseeable future. Stepping in was Mariusz Kwiecien, who was paired with the soprano who starred with him when this Deborah Warner production opened the Met’s 2013-14 season: Anna Netrebko.
Ms. Warner’s staging still seems muddled both in concept and design. But nothing inhibited the performances of this exceptional cast. If anything, Mr. Kwiecien (as the dashing, aloof aristocrat Onegin) and Ms. Netrebko (as the bookish, impressionable Tatiana, who falls for him at first sight) were dramatically sharper and vocally bolder than in 2013. And the conductor Robin Ticciati drew taut, urgent playing from the excellent Met orchestra.
The theme of “Eugene Onegin,” adapted from Pushkin, is voiced early by Madame Larina (Elena Zaremba), the widowed landowner who runs her own estate and frets over her daughters: Tatiana and Olga (the radiant mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova). She repeats a wise proverb: “Heaven sends us habit in place of happiness.”
But when Tatiana meets Onegin, an emotional cavern within her is suddenly exposed. Ms. Netrebko put everything on the line during the great “letter scene,” in which Tatiana pours out her feelings while writing. Her distinctive sound, warm and sumptuous with a dusky cast, and her raw intensity combined to convey the longing and fear embedded in…