TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugene Onegin
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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Cultural resonances are strange phenomena. To Russian audiences, Pyotr Tchaikovskys great opera Eugene Onegin must be redolent of all those nineteenth-century Russian novels and plays replete with country estates, marriageable girls and bored young men of good family. For any Russian, there must be the added tension of knowing that the storys originator Pushkin met the same fate as the poet Lensky, being killed in a duel. For English-speaking audiences, on the other hand, the tale cannot escape being refracted through the equally ironic and satirical but irresistibly comic vision of Jane Austen, with Tatiana, Olga, Onegin and Lensky as tragic counterparts to Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy and Bingley. Which just goes to show what a universal work of art Pushkins verse novel is and opera lovers are urged to read it.
As for the musical treatment, subject and composer were here perfectly matched; and Tchaikovsky prepared his own libretto, with a little help from his friend Konstantin Shilovsky. The work was composed in less than a year. Although Tchaikovsky was a little taken aback when the singer Elizaveta Lavrovskaya suggested the subject to him in May 1877, his innate feeling for the stage and his lyrical impulses were in tune with Pushkins bitter-sweet story from the start; and he managed to write a number opera with plenty of telling moments for individual singers, while, like Verdi in La Traviata, creating an almost symphonic framework for the action. Another parallel with La Traviata is that Eugene Onegin is really a chamber opera, set on a large stage only for the sake of the party scenes, which provide ironic backdrops for climactic moments. This being Tchaikovsky, the spirit of the dance is never far away; but there are also authentic folk elements in the country scenes to offset the sophistication of the town scenes. The orchestra has much to do, both supporting and commenting on the stage action, and the writing for woodwind and solo horn shows all Tchaikovskys mastery.
Little wonder, then, that for more than a century Eugene Onegin has been the most popular Russian opera. Tchaikovsky himself saw his assembly of lyrical scenes as an ensemble piece. He made a point of entrusting the première on 29th March 1879 to the students of Moscow Conservatory, but like all great music it needs the attention of the best professionals. Despite its reliance on soloists with big reputations and voices to match, the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow has always been the ensemble company par excellence. Admittedly its first staging of Eugene Onegin in 1881 was not the success everyone had hoped for not until the opera was mounted by the Imperial Opera of
St Petersburg in 1884 did it break through to popularity and subsequent Bolshoi productions have tended to be passed down from revival to revival as if graven on stone. Even so, the work has constantly been refreshed by new generations of singers. Eugene Onegin has been given more Bolshoi recordings than any other work, with a relatively small number of singers involved, as certain soloists have recorded their rôles twice (some of them three times, if you include film soundtracks). The present recording is of immense historical interest, as it is almost the earliest. In the 1930s the Bolshoi was particularly rich in lyric tenors, with Ivan Jadan, Sergei Lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky on the roster. Jadan defected during World War II, ending up in America; but for several decades Lemeshev and Kozlovsky divided Russian audiences into camps of devotees, just as Smirnov and Sobinov had done earlier in the century. To Lemeshev and the soprano Glafira Zhukovskaya went the honour of taking part in the first recording of Eugene Onegin, in 1936, but Kozlovsky followed suit the next year with Elena Kruglikova singing Tatiana. The title rôle was taken by Panteleimon Nortsov on both occasions. The 1937 recording is credited to the conductor Alexander Melik-Pashaev but in fact eight of the forty sides were directed by that great all-rounder Alexander Orlov (although not a Bolshoi conductor, he was rewarded in 1948, just before his death, with the next complete Eugene Onegin recording, in which Kozlovsky and Kruglikova repeated their rôles). The two conductors keep Tchaikovskys music light and airy, without the occasional over-excitement shown by Vassili Nebolsin in the earlier recording, or the ponderousness of Mstislav Rostropovichs much later effort.
Alexander Melik-Pashaev (1905-64) was born in what is now Tbilisi and studied at the conservatories there and in Leningrad. He began his career as a pianist in 1921 and the following year joined the opera house in Tbilisi as a repetiteur. Having studied conducting in Leningrad with Alexander Gauk, he made his Bolshoi début in 1931 with Aida and from then on was associated with that theatre, giving countless performances and making many recordings from the 78rpm era through to stereo. He was the houses chief conductor from 1953-62.
Alexander Orlov (1873-1948) was born in
St Petersburg and educated there and in Berlin, where he studied composition under Paul Juon. He had a varied career, taking in both opera and symphonic work, before being made chief conductor of the Moscow Radio Orchestra in 1930. He left a number of recordings.
Elena Kruglikova (1907-82) was from Podolsk. She studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Xenia Dorliak (mother of the concert singer Nina Dorliak), graduating with distinction in 1932 and almost immediately joining the Bolshoi, where she sang until 1956. Best known as an opera soloist, she was also in demand for concerts. From 1958 she taught singing at her alma mater. Her repertoire took in a number of the more lyrical Russian opera rôles, as well as Matilde in Guillaume Tell and the lighter Wagnerian parts. She recorded several other complete operas.
Elizaveta Antonova (1904-?), from St Petersburg, studied there and from 1924-29 sang in the Bolshoi Chorus. After a few years concentrating on concert work and becoming known as one of Russias foremost contraltos, she returned to the Bolshoi as a soloist in 1934, remaining there for twenty years. She sang mainly Russian repertoire but also appeared as Fricka in The Ring and even as Leonore in Fidelio. She made several other complete opera recordings.
Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-93) had perhaps the most glorious career of any lyric tenor in the twentieth century. Born in a village in the Poltava area of the Ukraine, he studied at the Kiev Conservatory and made his début in Poltava in 1920 in Gounods Faust. He came to the Bolshoi in 1926 after stints in Kharkov and Sverdlovsk, making his bow as Alfredo in La Traviata, and last sang there on his ninetieth birthday, contributing Monsieur Triquets couplets from Eugene Onegin to a gala concert in his honour. His wide repertoire encompassed many of the lyric tenor leads in Russian, French and Italian opera, but also Lohengrin and such character rôles as the Idiot in Boris Godunov. He made countless recordings, ranging as far afield as Benjamin Brittens Serenade. His plangent, immediately recognisable voice was ideal for the rôle of Lensky.
Panteleimon Nortsov (1900-93) was Kozlovskys exact contemporary, came from the same part of the Ukraine and also studied in Kiev, starting as a tenor but soon realising he was actually a baritone. He started his career in Kiev in 1924 and sang in Kharkov and at the Bolshoi before joining the regular Bolshoi company in 1925. Older opera-goers who could remember Battistini compared him with t