“Brillez, Brillez Toujours, Belle Tatyana!”

Setting for the duel of Onegin and Lensky. © Charles Thibo
Setting for the duel of Onegin and Lensky. © Charles Thibo

I remember the time without Youtube, iTunes, live streaming and the Met having operas beamed into movie theaters. Something like two decades ago. The only way to see and hear an opera was actually to buy a ticket and attend an opera performance. That’s what I did. I walked up to the counter of the Leipzig opera house and bought a ticket for Tchaikovsky’s “Evgenij Onegin”. Some 20 years ago.

The name of the opera should have been a warning to me. Later that day, I would discover that the opera would be sung in Russian. Now, despite taking Russian lessons for two years, I obviously didn’t understand a word that evening, except for Monsieur Triquet’s couplets in the 2nd act, which were in French. However, this was not to be a problem as I had a general idea about the libretto, written by Tchaikovsky on the basis of a novel of Alexander Pushkin. Actually, it was an advantage, since it compelled me to focus on the music. And the music, oh boy… What an experience!

The libretto in short

Act 1: Onegin meets Tatyana, who falls in love with him. Onegin’s friend Lensky is already engaged to Tatyana’s sister Olga. Onegin however informs Tatyana, that he is not suited as a husband.

Act 2: On a ball, Onegin dances with Olga to tease his friend Lensky. Lensky is offended, they duel and Lensky dies.

Act 3: Years later, Onegin returns to Russia and meets Earl Gremina, married in the meantime to Tatyana. Onegin recognized his error and confesses his love to Tatyana. Tatyana however remains loyal to the earl and leaves Onegin heart-broken.

Perfect kitsch!

Here are my favorite parts of the 1st act: the Peasants Chorus and the arioso by which Lensky expresses his love to Olga. Then there is the Entracte and Waltz at the opening of 2nd act – I always liked to imagine myself on one of those sumptuous 19th century balls in Russia, waltzing with some elegant duchess (Tatyana?) in my arms through the ballroom with chandeliers, marble floors and cold drinks served by servants dressed in liveries! The opera’s setting is perfect to stimulate such fantasies…

And I adore that little gem of Triquet’s couplet praising the beauty of Tatyana. “Brillez, brillez toujours, belle Tatyana!” It’s so kitsch! Marvellous! The lament of Lensky, just prior to the duel, is one of my favorite parts of Act 2 as it reflects the dimension of the tragic fate that has befallen Tatyana, Lensky and Onegin. In act 3, I would like to mention Earl Gremina’s aria and of course the final duet of Tatyana and Onegin, full of broken dreams.

The day after I had been at the opera in Leipzig, I got myself the record that I still have today: A recording by the Orchestre de Paris and the St. Petersbourg Chamber Choir with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Nuccia Focile as Tatyana and Neil Shicoff as Lensky.

© Charles Thibo

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2 thoughts on ““Brillez, Brillez Toujours, Belle Tatyana!””

  1. Well, I took Russian lessons while I was studying in Munich, but never really got very far. I was in a class with the offspring of East Prussian families, young, rich, elitist and extremely motivated men and women, all eager to go east and discover the Koenigsberg area and the land of their forefathers. So the class progressed at the speed of light, and since I had to focus on political science, statistics and sociology, I had little time to do my Russian homework. After two years I gave up. I was very sorry about that then and I still am as Russian is a wonderful language. Once I have become an accomplished pianist, I will learn first Italian (easy, I had six years of Latin), then Russian! I’ll probably be 100 years old by then…

    This said, studying the music written by Russian composers at home or in exile is my way to connect with Russian culture. I hope I will get down to read some Pushkin over the next few months. The French translations have been waiting for some time in my bookshelf.

  2. I’ve only just noticed this post. Ah… Евгений Онегин… This name brings back so many happy memories. When I was a child, my Armenian grandmother taught me to read the Cyrillic alphabet with the help of a large tome of Pushkin’s complete works. She read Евгений Онегин aloud to me, and I still remember bits. Back in 1999, I translated Eugene Onegin into English – strictly in prose – and added lines of my own to turn it into a play, which was subsequently directed in a small London theatre by actress Susannah York.

    I love Tchaikovsky’s opera, though, sadly, it lacks the irony of Pushkin’s work. Lensky’s aria of fateful premonition before he is shot breaks your heart. It’s particularly poignant because it somehow foreshadows Pushkin’s own death in a duel, and then that of poet Lermontov. When he dies, Tchaikovsky’s chord express intense desolation. Pushkin expresses great sorrow for the waste of this young life and talent. Then he adds (translation by Charles Johnston – Penguin Classics, 1977):
    “Perhaps, however, to be truthful,
    he would have found a normal fate.
    The years would pass: no longer youthful,
    he’d see his soul cool in its grate:
    at forty he’d have got the gout,
    drunk, eaten, yawned, grown weak and stout,
    at length, midst children swarming round him,
    midst crones with endless tears to shed,
    and doctors, he’d have died in bed.”

    I’ve had the Hvorostovsky, Focile, Shicoff recording for years, and loved it. That is until I discovered the historic Bolshoi recording with Vishnevskaya, conducted by Khaikin. Now I won’t listen to the other one.

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