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.
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