Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Eugene Onegin" on the Radio


After some morning errands and shopping, I came home to listen to the last two acts of Eugene Onegin on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. When I read Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in translation in college, I was told that reading the original in Russian was the only way to understand the full impact of this novel in poetry. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky's operatic version of the novel, which shifts the dramatic focus from Onegin to Tatiana, can be appreciated by anyone because of the music.

I was in the grocery store while Anna Nebtreko was singing the Letter Scene, but I found the scene from the 2013/2014 production here. The staging--how she wrote the letter holding the notebook in the air and twirling around--made the line "I'm afraid to read it over." unintentionally funny. She won't be able to read her own writing! On the drive home, I heard Onegin's aria when he brushes Tatiana off so coolly.

Once home and the groceries put away, I listened to the last two acts with attention. The Met's program for the opera describes the music thus:

Tchaikovsky’s universally beloved lyric gifts are at their most powerful and multilayered in this opera. Rich ensembles punctuate the work, including a quartet for women near the beginning, an elaborate choral ensemble that concludes the first scene of Act II, and a haunting fugue for tenor and baritone in Act II, Scene 2. The vocal solos are among the most striking in the repertory: anyone who can remember the first stirrings of love will be moved by Tatiana’s extended “Letter Scene” in Act I, in which she rhapsodically composes a letter to Onegin in an outpouring of gorgeous melody. This is rivaled in popularity by the tenor’s moving farewell to his young life in Act II, while Onegin’s Act III narrative on the pointlessness of life borders on Wagnerian. Interspersed among these great solos are finely honed character pieces, such as the French tutor’s charming name-day serenade to Tatiana (in French) and the bass Prince Gremin’s moving ode to the surprise of finding love late in life. Throughout the opera, Tchaikovsky’s unique mastery of dance music provides episodes of ballet that reflect and augment the drama.

I heard a little of Anna Nebtreko's interview with Renee Fleming about her role and the opera: she urged listeners to read the book too, because there's so much more there! As this blogger explains, Lensky's aria, which I was looking forward to, is indeed one of the great highlights of the opera:

The only reason that impresarios can convince leading tenors to take the part of Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is the second act aria ‘Kuda, Kuda’, hereafter referred to as Lensky’s aria. Even then tenors dislike playing a character who dies in the second act. This was why Richard Tucker dropped the role after 1957-58 . “My public doesn’t like to see me die in the second act,” was the explanation he offered.


The aria doesn’t make great demands on a tenor’s range, rather it requires great style and cantabile. I’ve put an English translation of the aria’s words below. I’ve made no attempt to present the words actually sung by the singers included in this compendium as they do the piece in Russian, English, German, Swedish, and Italian. I can offer no insight on the accuracy of the Russian diction by the singers who are not Russian but who sing Lensky’s Aria in the original language.

The blogger then provides numerous versions of Lensky's Aria, something opera fanatics often like to do (splice together different singers performing the same aria and either decide which singer is performing or which is the best performance). After sampling several of these performances, I have to admit that the native Russian singers--like the native Russian readers of Pushkin--have the advantage.

The question opera companies and performers face now is: are there enough fanatics to kept the art alive? Opera is the most extraordinary art, combining music, storytelling, drama, tradition, stage production, costumes, make-up, dance, etc. Is there still an audience for such riches? Renee Fleming is retiring from the operatic stage after her final performance of Der Rosenkavalier this season at the Met. The New York Times brought up the issue in the context of her retirement (my husband brought this article to my attention):

Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form, which is always imagining itself in trouble — what is opera about except crises? — but may really be in peril this time. Not only is opera more divorced than ever from mainstream culture, but also its core audience, the people who buy subscriptions, is literally dying off. The Met has had some luck attracting new operagoers through social media, collaborations with theater and visual artists, and fresher branding, but the most reliable way of ensuring attendance is still by casting big international stars, and one of Ms. Fleming’s magnitude is almost impossible to replace. Pl├ícido Domingo, the only singer on her level still performing, is 76, and, though he keeps defying time, can’t go on forever; younger artists like Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann may be opera-famous, but are hardly household names.

Fleming's Marschallin will be on the radio for that last performance--can you imagine the ovation? In Gottes Namen. Amen.

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