Tchaikovsky's letters reveal that he had many misgivings about this opera. He preferred to call it a set of lyric scenes rather than an opera. Ultimately, he hoped that "a few chosen listeners might be able to discover the work for themselves at home". Well, modern technology has certainly fulfilled his hopes. Internet browsers can select from a number of complete recordings of the opera and enjoy it endlessly in their own homes. This one derives from a production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1974 conducted by Solti.
All music lovers will be familiar with the most popular extracts from this opera. The Act 2 Waltz gains immeasurably when heard in context, however. It includes lines for almost all the principal singers, and there is a large contribution by the chorus. The Polonaise that opens Act 3 has no vocal parts. It is especially effective however in actual performance. When the curtain rises and the dancers are seen in the chandeliered ballroom, the spectacle never fails to bring loud applause.
Which is the star part in this opera? Some might say, Onegin, some Tatyana. Lenski's aria probably gets the most applause. The team of singers here is entirely strong and convincing. As Onegin, Bernd Weikl skillfully suggests a range of feeling: scorn, vindictiveness, regret and desolation. Teresa Kubiak is an endearing Tatyana, especially strong in the last scene. Stuart Burrows is unexcelled as Lenski. Almost stealing the show, is the Gremin of Nicolai Ghiaurov, whose solitary appearance in Act 3 is well worth the wait.
Solti has left us many opera sets of great merit, and this is one of them. As was usual in opera sets for this label which he directed, great care is taken with balance, off stage effects, and clarity. The Kingsway Hall recording is warm and colourful, befitting this wonderful score. It all fits onto two well-filled CDs. There is a 200 page booklet enclosed, which includes the libretto in four languages.
To start by summarising: this is a very good Onegin indeed, and probably a very safe recommendation. It is not absolutely perfect even in aspects where there is reasonable hope of a common understanding of the term. For instance the singing is of a very high standard throughout, but here and there an occasional note might have been more secure. The recording is very easy on the ear without being in any way startling, but just now and again there is a hint of roughness. The orchestral work is very sensitive but arguably lacking a touch of lustre. The liner booklet is very thorough and professional, but it may be worth a little discussion of some statements that are made in the course of David Brown's essay. As regards Solti's direction, he may raise some eyebrows (he raised mine) by the uncharacteristically gentle touch he brings to this work.
To me, any minimal technical lapses that I even noticed were utterly unimportant. However nothing could be more important than the general concept of what this opera is about, and how that is expressed in performance. I recalled an interesting throwaway remark in Beecham's autobiography, something to the effect that Tchaikovsky and Beethoven wrote highly dramatic instrumental music, but had little sense of drama in the theatre. I can relate this view to Fidelio - the libretto is not much of a libretto, Beethoven is not much of a dramatist, and the work's greatness lies in its symbolic and purely musical respects. However I can make no sense of what Beecham says when it comes to Onegin. The libretto is Tchaikovsky's own adaptation of Pushkin, and I, knowing no Russian and no Pushkin, find it an excellent libretto. To any other listeners in the same boat I'd say this is probably a bonus. No doubt the composer simplified the sacred text and the character of Onegin, but what the eye never sees the heart never grieves over, and this is a clear, coherent and powerful libretto that Verdi, I feel sure, would have given a lot to be offered. How should this `power' be expressed in performance? Tchaikovsky in person was given to hyperbole, and so is his orchestral music, but the orchestral writing in Onegin is surprisingly delicate, the playing here is surprisingly delicate too, and I like it this way. Sure, there is a `fate' motif here, but it is not like the blaring effort that makes the fourth symphony near-intolerable to me, and in fact it seems to me to point up an interesting anomaly. Tchaikovsky had a self-dramatising sense of fate, but Pushkin's story, in my opinion, is not about fate but about some ill-advised moves made by young people. They could perfectly well have acted differently, and at the very end Tatyana, offered the promise of boundless love and devotion by her rueful and once-dismissive suitor, responds not on any Wagnerian basis of omnia uincit amor but rather in the spirit of Wordsworth's Ode to Duty, turning her back on the dashing Onegin in favour of her elderly and infatuated husband. The `fate' motif here seems more a bit of musical furniture than anything else, and that again is how I like it.
The real power of Tchaikovsky's Onegin, I hardly need say, is in its lyric beauty and intensity. To me, it is music that expresses emotions and situations more than music that delineates personalities. The singers act with their voices to a certain extent, but not to the extent of trying to make the music what it is not. I like the youthful tenor of Stuart Burrows as Lensky, nicely offset against the a-few-years-older baritone of Bernd Weikl's Eugene. Tatyana and Olga in the first scene are very nicely contrasted too, and so are the older women. Absolutely delightful is the lyric French of Michel Senechal as Triquet, and since ignorance spares me any doubts about the cast's pronunciation of Russian let me also report for what it is worth that it is a joy to hear French sung like this. If `cameo' is any word for the part of Gremin, let me also highlight the superb performance of his great cameo aria by no less than Ghiaurov. Perhaps some listeners may feel that Teresa Kubiak could have `done' a little more with the most famous high-spot of all, the letter scene, but once again the way she handles it is all part and parcel of the general idea, so I buy it as I find it.
David Brown's sympathetic essay refers, as it would have to, to the pressures that the composer's homoeroticism and his excruciating travesty of a marriage put him under. I'm not sure what conclusions one is supposed to draw from this. Very few creative geniuses were models of stability along the lines of Captain Mainwaring, and this was just how fate rolled the dice for Tchaikovsky. What Brown has to say reads to me as very sound and informative, but if by any chance he is under the impression he is talking about the music when he is really discussing the composer's biography there is no reason why you or I should fall into the same trap. There is a synopsis of the plot as well as the full text with German English and French translations, and the Russian is very sensibly given in Roman script, making it the easiest thing in the world to keep track of what is being sung, unless of course it is easier still just to be carried along on the golden flow of this wonderful, beautiful and touching musical drama.