Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera “Eugene Onegin” was on the program of the Festival international d’art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence’s 69th season in a concert performance. It was masterfully presented by Moscow’s Bolshoi’s choir and orchestra, under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev. The Theatre’s leading soloists included Igor Golovatenko in the title role, Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana, Bogdan Volkov as Lensky, soloist Svetlana Shilova as the nurse Filippievna, as well as Irina Rubtsova, who has been with the Bolshoi since 1993, as Mrs. Larina. The Bolshoi’s Young artists’ program pupil Evgenia Asanova was Olga whereas Prince Gremin’s part in the final act was performed by Estonian bass Ain Anger, soloist of the Vienna State Opera.
The performance was part of the cooperation between the Festival and Russia’s Bolshoi Opera, one of the world’s oldest and most renowned companies. It began in April featuring some of the Festival’s most significant works from the past few years performed on the Bolshoi’s New Stage.
Hearing an opera in a concert performance is always an interesting experience. With no scenery and costumes, with which to distract oneself in case the artistic or vocal qualities are found wanting, it can be excruciatingly boring.
Or, as was the case at the sold-out Grand Théâtre de Provence, it can turn out to be a captivating event offering the audience the rare opportunity to appreciate this uniquely Russian work performed by a highly accomplished native cast.
Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” is a radiant lyric opera of which the composer wrought numerous symphonic elements, plush orchestrations, and highly melodic arias.
It is based on one of the most striking and interesting literary works ever written in the Russian language, Pushkin’s novel in verse “Eugene Onegin,” the first complete edition of which appeared in 1833.
A chatty narrator loosely tells the story of the young dandy Onegin, who, blessed with an accommodating father and brought up by indulgent governesses, is the darling of all high society balls, children’s festivities, evenings at the ballet, and fashionable restaurants. He travels to the country to be by the deathbed of his rich uncle, whose estate he inherits. Stuck in the country, he tries to modernize the way in which the facilities work but, struck down by Russian boredom, as Pushkin calls it (русская хандра), he soon gives up. With nothing else to do, he befriends his 18-year old neighbor Lensky, who has just returned from his studies at the University of Gottingen.
The naïve young man introduces him to their neighbours, the Larins, a good-natured old-fashioned family with two daughters, the younger Olga, with whom Lensky is in love, and her more reserved and older sister Tatiana, who, much like her mother, has been brought up on a diet of sentimental 18th century English and French fiction. When presented to the modishly remote Onegin, she falls in love with him and, tragically confusing reality and fiction, writes him a passionate letter. Onegin, who is left unmoved, lectures her on the risk she has taken expressing herself with such honesty. He sees married life as torture and walks away from the distraught Tatiana.
At a party celebrating Tatiana’s name-day, he flirts with Olga to distract himself, much to the displeasure of his friend Lensky, who challenges him to a duel. Onegin does not take the encounter seriously but ends up killing Lensky. Tortured by guilt, he travels for five years but is unable to forget the tragic event. Back to Saint-Petersburg, where he was born, he, in true Onegin fashion, proceeds straight from the ship to a ball. There he encounters a friend, the older Prince N, who introduces him to his highly sought after society hostess and beautiful wife, who turns out to be Tatiana. Onegin recognizes her and faithful to his fickle nature, falls in love with her, in turn expressing his feelings in a letter. Tatiana meets him in private and admits to her love for him but chooses to remain faithful and honorable to her husband. Onegin is left distraught.
Interestingly this romantic theme is the least developed and arguably the least interesting in the entire novel. What makes the novel so engaging, its innovative poetic form, the exceptionally rich language, and the chatty worldly narrator.
Tchaikovsky’s decision, upon the suggestion of his friend the singer Elisaveta Lavrovskaia in the spring of 1877 to embark upon the composition of an opera based on Pushkin’s masterpiece, was described by contemporaries as “utter madness”. Adapting the novel for the stage required getting rid of its most entertaining and powerful element, the virtuoso narrator, and reducing its brilliance to a romantic plot consisting of bland situations and a conclusion without climax.
Tchaikovsky was deeply engaged in the opera and its protagonists. He loved Tatiana and was angry at Onegin for his heartless and careless treatment of her. To compensate for divesting the novel of its more interesting features, he chose to depict emotion and its truthful expression by the main characters. This deliberate choice makes the opera an emotional powerhouse, which is appealing to audiences the world over to this day.
“It seems to me that I am truly gifted with the ability truthfully, sincerely, and simply to express the feelings, moods, and images suggested by a text. In this sense, I am a realist and fundamentally a Russian,” Tchaikovsky wrote to a friend.
In love at 17
After several years of tinkering, particularly in regards to the final scene, Tchaikovsky came up with an opera divided into three acts, seven scenes, and 22 numbers, which received its professional debut at the Bolshoi Theatre in January 1881. Although the composer wasn’t even sure it should be considered an “opera” thinking of it as “lyrical scenes,” the work is unified by a leitmotif-like structure spanning outward from Tatiana’s letter scene, the centerpiece of the opera, which was the first element of the opera Tchaikovsky composed.
Bolshoi’s leading soloist, soprano Anna Nechaeva, turned in a magic act. Having enacted the role since 2003, she is not the 17-year old adolescent discovering her first love, but the gorgeous delivery came across as honest and utterly convincing.
As the scene begins – act I, scene 2 – Tatiana speaks with the exhilaration so typical of the novels, the sentimental world of which she inhabits, and begins to write. The expert delivery of Tchaikovsky’s clever music at this stage as well as throughout the opera by the Bolshoi’s Orchestra deserves special mention. The syncopation of the low strings could clearly be heard as Tatiana’s erratic heartbeat, the oboe and the flute accompanying her writing, and the arpeggiation of the harp mimicking the quill being dipped in ink.
Overwhelmed with frustration and fear of rejection, Tatiana tears up her letter. As she resumes writing, the Tatiana leitmotif is heard. She takes a moment to ponder the wisdom of her actions in a luscious melody in which Nechaeva’s vocal agility and power were showcased perfectly, the beautiful chromaticism evoking overwhelming hope.
But the reckless Tatiana is back and in a musical outburst of elation, the same sentimental motif develops into a more dramatic and fanciful shape. The melody begins with the trombones and interweaves with woodwinds, while the flourishing of the strings mimic the feverish euphoria of the sleepless night. The letter is sent before Tatiana can change her mind.
The semi-Russian neighbour
Tenor Bogdan Volkov was a most sensitive Lensky, the poet with shoulder-length black curls, who because of his love of Kant and studies in Germany, is described in the novel as the “semi-Russian neighbor”. The aria “Kuda, kuda vy udalilis’” (Where have you gone, o golden days of my spring?) turned out to be the highpoint of the performance.
Waiting for the duel to begin at the crack of dawn, Lensky, who ironically is only 18, is remembering the bygone days of youth. Pliant strings make up the pining melody while a descending line introduces the aria proper. The main theme is immediately familiar from its earlier softer version, present in the letter scene. Here, however, the theme features a sharper chromatic sting.
Volkov’s clear tenor mastered perfectly the ascending and descending melodic lines, as the overlapping woodwind solos gradually ensnared the voice to overwhelming effect. A dialogue between an oboe and a clarinet recalls past happiness followed by a dramatic reprise of the opening melody with the vocal performance accompanied by woodwind becoming ever more elaborate.
As Lensky calls upon Olga and declares to be her husband, Volkov’s magnificent voice went into a heroic pitch befitting a daring lover. But given the unattainable dream this was, the music shifted back into a minor key. The opening question of the aria was repeated, only for the violins and a lone horn to respond as Onegin arrived for the fatal duel.
Onegin, my good friend
Interestingly, Onegin, who in the novel is described as the narrator’s “good friend born on the shores of the Neva” and is the title character of both the book and the opera, does not have such grand stand-alone areas as Tatiana and Lensky. Of course, he is present from the first to the last act, but there are no leitmotifs uniquely associated to him, as is the case with Tatiana. Perhaps Tchaikovsky was genuinely angry with him, as he declared in numerous letters and deprived him of a signature melody. Even Olga, who is barely present in the novel, has a charming arioso in act I, which was exquisitely showcased by mezzo-soprano Evgenia Asanova.
Despite the fact that the role is relatively unremarkable from a musical point of view, baritone Igor Golovatenko did not disappoint. A thoughtful actor, despite the restrictive concert setup, as well as a fine singer he came out convincingly as the blasé eccentric the object of passionate adolescent love. In the final act, when Tatiana, now Princess Gremina, turned her back on him, he seemed genuinely pitiful and broken.
All Ages Obey Love
A highpoint, which cannot be overlooked, is Gremin’s aria “Liubvi vse vozrasty pokorny” (All ages obey love) in act III. Sung with great feeling by Estonian bass Ain Anger, it is a remarkable declaration of love more mature and arguably deeper than Tatiana’s fiction-induced euphoria. Gremin’s character is significantly more developed in the opera compared to the novel, where he is only mentioned in passing as Prince N. In the three-part bass aria, he declares his profound feelings for his younger wife, whom he loves “to distraction”. “My life was slipping drearily away;” he says, “She appeared and brightened it, like a ray of sunlight in a stormy sky, and brought me life and youth.” The three-part da capo structure, where the beginning is repeated after the middle part, emphasizes the noble feelings beautifully interpreted by Anger.
All in all, it was an emotional Russian night, in which the talented Bolshoi artists delivered in a spectacular manner and which was acknowledged by a richly deserved lengthy standing ovation.