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Grand Tier - Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin / Khaikin, Vishnevskaya, Et Al

Release Date: 03/10/2009 
Label:  Opera D'oro   Catalog #: 7066   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Sergei LemechevNikolai TimchenkoAndrei SokolovIgor Mikhailov,   ... 
Conductor:  Boris Khaikin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bolshoi Theatre OrchestraBolshoi Theatre Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mono 
Length: 2 Hours 20 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TCHAIKOVKSY Eugene Onegin Boris Khaikin, cond; Eugene Belov ( Onegin ); Galina Vishnevskaya ( Tatyana ); Ivan Petrov ( Prince Gremin ); Sergei Lemeshev ( Lenski ); Larissa Avdeyeva ( Olga ); Valentina Petrova ( Larina ); Eugena Verbitskaya ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Filipyevna ); Georgi Pankov ( Captain ); Igor Mikhailov ( Zaretzki ); Andrei Sokolov ( Triquet ); Nikolai Timchenko ( Soloist) ; Bolshoi Theater O & Ch OPERA D’ORO 7066, mono (2 CDs: 139:59)

I remember reading, in Fanfare I believe, a critic opining that Eugene Onegin was not a totally lovable opera because none of its characters was totally lovable. That struck me as possibly true, though perhaps more widely applicable than the writer meant. I have never found Aida , for instance, cuddly, or anyone particularly appealing even in La traviata. Peter Grimes? In the Pushkin poem, which I have read only in translation, the characters are introduced, surrounded really, by a wise-guy narrator, who is alternately sentimental and sarcastic, and who seems to keep us from too deep an involvement with the fates of the characters involved, however charming (Tatyana) they may seem to be. The literary parallel that comes to mind is Laurence Sterne, especially in his Sentimental Journey , in which the hero, deeply moved, addresses a mule about its life. Or perhaps Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience , in which the innocence is framed by the images of experience, which never quite negate its value. Madame Larina brings up a third reference, to Richardson, whose epistolary novels that virtually drip with sentiment, were unaccountably popular in Europe and Russia. (J. J. Rousseau was a huge fan.)

The poet narrator of Onegin does not allow us to linger in a tragic mode. When the young poet Lenski is killed by his buddy Onegin in a duel that is essentially murder, Pushkin tells us about the possible loss to the world. In Nabokov’s translation, “His martyred shade, perhaps, had borne away with it a sacred mystery.” But then in the next stanza: “And then again: perhaps, the poet had a habitual lot awaiting him. The years of youth would have elapsed: the fervor of the soul cooled down in him.” In short, he would become bourgeois. Lenski is a little too in love with his own soul; Onegin is prematurely bored, insensitive, even brutal when asserting, perhaps falsely, his ennui; Tatyana, another romantic, pours out her heart to a man she barely knows, who has seen this type of thing too many times before. Onegin is hardly a good judge of character, especially perhaps his own. When Lenski tells him of his love for the outgoing Olga, he tells Lenski that he would go for the more lively one, Tatyana. Onegin is the only person who would suggest that Tatyana, who typically is found by the window staring at the moon, is lively. When, improbably, Onegin falls in love with Tatyana after her marriage, Onegin “in love is with Tatiana like a child.” Childishness at that point in the tale is intolerable.

Despite this narration, with its mixture of romanticism, man-of-the-world cynicism, and healthy realism, and despite characters even more limited than in the Tchaikovsky version, Eugene Onegin the poem is widely loved by Russians. So it is possible to love flawed characters, even when the flaws matter. I do find the opera largely lovable, made so by Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous flow of melody. Tchaikovsky softens the story by eliminating the narrator, as was necessary, and by letting the characters unfold their sentiments in song, as any opera must. At the very end of the opera, Tchaikovsky allows Onegin at least to state that he is in anguish. (Pushkin subjects Onegin to a long lecture by Tatyana about his “offensive passion,” after which her husband arrives and “at an unkind minute for him, reader, we now shall leave for long . . . forever.” The point is that the moment is unkind for Onegin, but for him (and Tatyana) alone; the reader is untouched. Then Pushkin celebrates, “Let us congratulate each other on attaining land.”

For many, the heart of the opera is Tatyana, whose Letter Scene is at the emotional center of the piece. Thus, one appeal of this 1955 performance is Galina Vishnevskaya at the height of her powers. This studio recording, recorded by Melodiya, has been available before on compact disc, on a set issued by Legato Classics. By chance this performance, recorded in sturdy mono, the James Levine, and the 1937 recording on Naxos, are the renditions I have listened to the most. The sound of this set, though not as lively as could be, is certainly acceptable. I have not heard the original LPs, but I am guessing that there is some loss of quality. This Russian set, after the prelude, begins with the duet between Olga and Tatyana, lustily sung by Vishnevskaya and Avdeyeva: clearly this will be an emotional performance. The voices are forward in the mix here, despite Tchaikovsky’s suggestion that the two girls are singing a duet within the house. In the scene that follows, the peasants are gradually brought forward from a distance, which seems a little perverse; they never achieve the energy and zest of the Levine version. Generally, the voices feel very close. They also sound like the native Russian speakers that they were. Vishnevskaya is a near perfect Tatyana, if one assumes that Tatyana, despite her paleness and moony quality, is ready to burst with emotion. Vishnevskaya lets hers explode in the Letter Scene, but is subtle enough to capture the wistfulness and essential sadness as well. She is also able to convey her relative restraint in the finale. I can’t particularly hear innocence in the voice, but neither can I in Tchaikovsky’s lush score. Belov and Lemeshev fulfill their roles well. Lemeshev’s tenor is a high instrument, rather light, but then so is his character. Onegin is one of the least sympathetic heroes in opera; how can one play a cynic who is a subterranean romantic, but who is still willing to kill his friend when it becomes inconvenient not to? And who figures out he is in love, and starts bugging his loved one, only after she is unhappily married. (After being rejected, he spends years traveling, presumably in remorse, à la Byron, but that remorse isn’t dramatized in either the opera or the play. Belov sounds appropriately agitated in the last scenes; he is in good voice.

There is so much ravishing music in the orchestral parts that, despite Vishnevskaya and the excellent cast, I am led back to the James Levine recording, despite his singers, who don’t sound Russian. My recommendation to listeners who find the opera appealing would be to get both renditions. I don’t hear any improvement in the sound on this issue from the Melodiya, so readers with the earlier issued set should stick with that.

FANFARE: Michael Ullman
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Works on This Recording

Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performer:  Sergei Lemechev (Tenor), Nikolai Timchenko (), Andrei Sokolov (Tenor),
Igor Mikhailov (Bass), Georgi Pankov (Bass), Eugenia Verbitskaya (Mezzo Soprano),
Valentina Petrova (Mezzo Soprano), Ivan Petrov (Bass), Larissa Avdeyeva (Alto),
Galina Vishnevskaya (Soprano), Eugene Belov (Baritone)
Conductor:  Boris Khaikin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra,  Bolshoi Theatre Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877-1878; Russia 
Date of Recording: 1955 
Venue:  Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, Russia 

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