Author Topic: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin  (Read 393 times)

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Offline ClassicalMusicLover

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Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« on: May 13, 2017, 04:59:15 AM »
I’ll dedicate the next few musical notes to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I have always had a difficult relationship with his music. My parents loved his first piano concerto, and I’ve listened to it a few thousand times over the years (I love it, too). At the same time, I was forced to listen to his music in school in Russia. Anytime I am forced into something I naturally start resenting it. This applies to Russian literature as well: my teachers turned Russian literature into Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic ”: a book that people praise and don’t read. I am still trying to get back into Russian literature, but Tchaikovsky’s incredible music has overcome my implanted childhood resentment to it, though it took time.

In the next few musical notes I’ll share Tchaikovsky’s music and what I’ve learned about him. There are several theories as to why Tchaikovsky died at age 53. The theory I heard when I was a child in Russia was that he died from cholera – probably from drinking contaminated water. However, there is another theory about his death: that he committed suicide. Tchaikovsky was a Russian national treasure, a symbol of Russian greatness, something the propaganda machine could point at and say, “Materialistic Americans have their poisonous hamburgers (and a chicken in every pot, and toilet paper, and…), but we got art.” This is also why the propaganda machine would censor a little-known fact about its national hero: Tchaikovsky was gay.

Today we see headlines about Putin’s homophobia, but as much as it’s convenient to blame it on Putin, it is not him but his country (admittedly, a very general statement). I did not learn of the existence of gay people until I was 17, and what I was told about them by my friends and the media was not much different from what the majority of Russians perceive today: that all gay people are AIDS-spreading pedophiles, so that being gay is a contagious. Also that one can become gay by observing gay behavior and that gays are responsible for the ongoing depopulation of Russia. (This is a new one and contains more than a kernel of self-denial: drinking unto death is the more likely explanation for Russian population shrinkage.) Russian homophobia goes back centuries and was in full flight in the late 19th century, the Tchaikovsky era.

Tchaikovsky hid his gay “flaw” all his life. Many think the cholera story was a cover-up of his suicide. Tchaikovsky was caught out having an affair with Duke Stenbock-Thurmor’s nephew. The duke was going to write a letter of protest to the Czar. This would have supposedly brought disgrace to Tchaikovsky. A “court of honor” made up of his former classmates in St. Petersburg ordered Tchaikovsky to swallow poison. He did. Or so the story goes. We’ll never know which theory is true, the cholera or the suicide, but we do know that being in the closet all his life had an impact on his music. This  will bring us, by and by, to Evgeniy Onegin (also known as Eugene Onegin).

Almost everything we know about Tchaikovsky today (and this is true about most classical composers) we learn through his letters exchanged with relatives and friends. In one letter to his brother when he was in his twenties, he says that he needs to get married. Not because he wants to have a family, but to help maintain his cover story. “I’ll marry anyone that will have me.” Shortly after, he got a fan letter from one of his former students at conservatory. She confessed her love for him. Tchaikovsky did not remember her, but they met. This is where the story gets murky. She wanted to marry him. He tried to explain to her that he was not interested in women and that it would be a fake marriage. Either he did not communicate that part that well or she did not understand it. They got married. She wanted more from him that he could give her. He could not physically stand her. His brother made up a story that doctors had told Tchaikovsky that his wife was making him sick. They separated.

At about the same time Tchaikovsky received a letter from Nedezhda von Meck, a very wealthy widow of a railroad magnate, who was also a fan of his music. Von Meck wanted to be his pen pal. She also ended up being his sugar mama (she supported him for thirteen years). They became close friends and exchanged over 1,000 letters. He dedicated his Symphony Number 4 to her. (I’ve written about that symphony here). But they never actually met!

There is a reason why I am writing about this. At about the time when Tchaikovsky received letters from his future wife and Nedezhda von Meck, he read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. (For those who did not go in for the Russian classics, Pushkin is the godfather of Russian literature, the Russian Shakespeare, if you will.) Anyway, Tchaikovsky was asked many times to compose an opera based on Eugene Onegin. He always declined, because he felt the bar raised by Pushkin was too high. But one sleepless night he read Eugene Onegin and became infatuated with the “letter scene” (see how this all starts to make sense?). Tatyana, who is love with Onegin, is writing him a letter, confessing her love for him. It is a deeply emotional scene, and this is the scene that pushed Tchaikovsky into writing the opera. Her felt a significant personal connection to it.

We saw Eugene Onegin in “Live in HD” broadcast from the Met last month. To my great surprise, my son loved this opera (in some cultures, taking a twelve-year-old to see opera would be considered child abuse). So today I want to share with you a few excerpts from this opera:

Letter Scene by Anna Netrebko (the performance we saw).

http://myfavoriteclassical.com/tchaikovsky-eugene-onegin/

Offline Wendell_E

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #1 on: May 14, 2017, 03:56:39 AM »
(in some cultures, taking a twelve-year-old to see opera would be considered child abuse)

My first trip to see an opera in New Orleans was a 1983 production of Tristan und Isolde. There was a boy who I guess was about that age sitting in front of me, with a couple of women. Now that borders on abusive, especially when you consider that there weren't any supertitles back then*.  The kid help up pretty well, as I recall.

*Supertitles had actually first been used (in Canada) a few months before the performance, but hadn't made it to the U.S. yet. Later in 1983, I saw a New York City Opera production of Massenet's Cendrillon, which marked the first time they were used in the U.S.

I love Onegin, but don't much care for the current Met production.
« Last Edit: May 14, 2017, 03:58:44 AM by Wendell_E »
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Offline Spineur

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #2 on: May 14, 2017, 06:31:39 AM »
I first saw Eugene Onegin live more than 20 years ago at the MET, in a different production than the one you saw.  Since then, I also saw the Paris opera production of 2010 which is being given again this month.

Both production were quite boaring (in different ways) which is a real problem because Onegin libretto is pretty boaring to start with.  In both cases I felt the music was magnificent.  I looked for DVD with a good staging but got pretty disapointed as well.
 So I am eagerly awaiting THE production which will somehow do justice to this opera.
I think it is possible to extoriorize the character psycologies and make it directly accessible to the audience.
A woman voice glides like the wind
Of black, of damp, of night
And all it touches in this flight
Suddenly is over.

Anna Akhomatova

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #3 on: May 14, 2017, 10:16:52 AM »
I first saw Eugene Onegin live more than 20 years ago at the MET, in a different production than the one you saw.  Since then, I also saw the Paris opera production of 2010 which is being given again this month.

Both production were quite boaring (in different ways) which is a real problem because Onegin libretto is pretty boaring to start with.  In both cases I felt the music was magnificent.  I looked for DVD with a good staging but got pretty disapointed as well.
 So I am eagerly awaiting THE production which will somehow do justice to this opera.
I think it is possible to extoriorize the character psycologies and make it directly accessible to the audience.

I've seen at least two magical productions, but both were quite a while ago now. The first one I saw was a Glyndebourne Touring production in a production with wonderful designs by Pier Luigi Pizzi and directed by Michael Hadjimischev. Then, a few years later, a Welsh National Opera production directed by Andrei Serban.

My favourite recording is still the old Bolshoi Khaikin recording with the young Vishnevskaya as Tatyana, just so perfectly and authentically right in every way.
\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

Offline BasilValentine

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #4 on: May 14, 2017, 03:45:20 PM »

In the next few musical notes I’ll share Tchaikovsky’s music and what I’ve learned about him. There are several theories as to why Tchaikovsky died at age 53. The theory I heard when I was a child in Russia was that he died from cholera – probably from drinking contaminated water. However, there is another theory about his death: that he committed suicide. Tchaikovsky was a Russian national treasure, a symbol of Russian greatness, something the propaganda machine could point at and say, “Materialistic Americans have their poisonous hamburgers (and a chicken in every pot, and toilet paper, and…), but we got art.” This is also why the propaganda machine would censor a little-known fact about its national hero: Tchaikovsky was gay.

Everyone knows Tchaikovsky was gay. His diaries and biographies fairly scream it. Tchaikovsky never even attempted suicide, unless you want to count standing in the Neva for a few minutes trying to catch a cold.

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #5 on: May 14, 2017, 11:29:04 PM »
Eugene Onegin, to my understanding, based on the opera and not the original story, is a person incapable of love. He has superficial charm he exploits in trivial flirtations. But it does not stop there. If he can destroy someone else's happiness in love, he doesn't mind doing it. His first coup was getting Tatiana emotionally bouleversed by him. After he got her hooked, he mocked emotions in her that he didn't have in himself, nor could experience.

In round two, he goes after Olga who also accepts the bait and he manages to literally destroy an already established relationship. If he experienced any guilt about killing Lensky, his subsequent behavior in trying to reignite that flame with Tatiana disproves it. Upon their meeting again, some disturbing residues surface, but Tatiana's resolve to do the right thing and be faithful to her husband prevent a continuation of this serial tragedy.

Eugene Onegin has some of the most fantastic music ever composed for opera. Hearing it, even without understanding the language, is a sheer delight.

Oh by the way, I have witnessed some men and women alike, serial relationship killers, who personify Onegin in destroying what they cannot have or feel.

ZB
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #6 on: May 15, 2017, 02:27:19 AM »
Eugene Onegin, to my understanding, based on the opera and not the original story, is a person incapable of love. He has superficial charm he exploits in trivial flirtations. But it does not stop there. If he can destroy someone else's happiness in love, he doesn't mind doing it. His first coup was getting Tatiana emotionally bouleversed by him. After he got her hooked, he mocked emotions in her that he didn't have in himself, nor could experience.

In round two, he goes after Olga who also accepts the bait and he manages to literally destroy an already established relationship. If he experienced any guilt about killing Lensky, his subsequent behavior in trying to reignite that flame with Tatiana disproves it. Upon their meeting again, some disturbing residues surface, but Tatiana's resolve to do the right thing and be faithful to her husband prevent a continuation of this serial tragedy.

Eugene Onegin has some of the most fantastic music ever composed for opera. Hearing it, even without understanding the language, is a sheer delight.

Oh by the way, I have witnessed some men and women alike, serial relationship killers, who personify Onegin in destroying what they cannot have or feel.

ZB

Excellent breakdown, ZB. I think you put it very succinctly. Onegin is the arch anti-hero, not a likeable character by any means. His behaviour towards the young, impressionable Tatyana is bad enough, but what he does to Olga and Lensky (supposedly his best friend) is completely and utterly morally reprehensible. Tatyana is much better than him, and, by turning down his advances, shows that she holds the moral high ground.

Tchaikovsky's music is, as you say, superb, and wonderfully supports the libretto.

It's interesting, don't you think, that the hero of Tchaikovsky's second most successful opera The Queen of Spades is also a morally reprehensible character, whose obsession with gambling destroys both himself and Lisa.

\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #7 on: May 15, 2017, 06:24:00 AM »
Chill atmosphere and pathos:

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/TFV3skTnu7Q" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/TFV3skTnu7Q</a>
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #8 on: May 15, 2017, 06:27:58 AM »
Chill atmosphere and pathos:

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/TFV3skTnu7Q" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/TFV3skTnu7Q</a>

Wonderful. Lemeshev is on the Khaikin recording I detailed above, and, though his voice has dried out a little, he's still wonderfully stylish.
\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #9 on: May 15, 2017, 06:35:22 AM »
Cads make for good opera  8)
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
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Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #10 on: May 15, 2017, 06:39:59 AM »
Here's Fritz Wunderlich who doesn't move an inch from where he is standing and also sings auf Deutsch:

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/v/zBxjUkOlggY" target="_blank" class="new_win">https://www.youtube.com/v/zBxjUkOlggY</a>

I don't know how much the Russian libretto follows the actual poetry of Pushkin but it is supposed to be very close. Even more difficult to render it into another language. Wunderlich is really wonderful as usual.

Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #11 on: May 15, 2017, 06:40:56 AM »
Cads make for good opera  8)

And they are usually baritones.
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #12 on: May 15, 2017, 06:43:17 AM »
Here's Fritz Wunderlich who doesn't move an inch from where he is standing

I am smiling to remember our Mike typifying that as stand and deliver.
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #13 on: May 15, 2017, 06:47:15 AM »
I am smiling to remember our Mike typifying that as stand and deliver.

or "park and bark"
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #14 on: May 15, 2017, 06:51:04 AM »
Ouch!
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #15 on: May 15, 2017, 07:18:27 AM »
or "park and bark"

Except that "bark" is quite the opposite of any word one wold use to describe the voice of Wunderlich.

Incidentally, I think stillness is exactly right for this aria. Just let the music do its job and put all the expression into the voice.

\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #16 on: May 15, 2017, 08:51:05 AM »
Except that "bark" is quite the opposite of any word one wold use to describe the voice of Wunderlich.

Indeed, one of the greats. If only we had at least another decade from him!

Incidentally, I think stillness is exactly right for this aria. Just let the music do its job and put all the expression into the voice.

Most difficult to accomplish with no other distractions.
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #17 on: May 15, 2017, 11:31:36 AM »
Indeed, one of the greats. If only we had at least another decade from him!

Indeed. He was only just getting into his artistic maturity. One wonders what else he might have been capable of. He might well have gone on to sing Lohengrin, or Florestan.


Most difficult to accomplish with no other distractions.

But marvellous if you can. There is a video of Callas singing Oh se una volta sola and Ah non credea on a French TV show in 1964. The voice by this time is threadbare and she has to tread carefully, but, elegantly dressed and coiffed though she is, she simply becomes the poor wronged village girl Amina,  and she achieves this without hardly moving a muscle. Pure genius.

\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

Offline zamyrabyrd

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #18 on: May 15, 2017, 07:46:44 PM »
Indeed. He was only just getting into his artistic maturity. One wonders what else he might have been capable of. He might well have gone on to sing Lohengrin, or Florestan.

But marvellous if you can. There is a video of Callas singing Oh se una volta sola and Ah non credea on a French TV show in 1964. The voice by this time is threadbare and she has to tread carefully, but, elegantly dressed and coiffed though she is, she simply becomes the poor wronged village girl Amina,  and she achieves this without hardly moving a muscle. Pure genius.

You mention characterization. Wunderlich was able to accomplish this even without the Russian language, that for purists is a real stumbling block.
Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit.

Offline Tsaraslondon

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Re: Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin
« Reply #19 on: May 16, 2017, 12:12:47 AM »
You mention characterization. Wunderlich was able to accomplish this even without the Russian language, that for purists is a real stumbling block.

Indeed it is a shame that his career was still centred mostly in Germany before his untimely death, which occurred just as he was on the threshold of international fame. Almost all his recordings of opera (French, Italian and Russian) are sung in German. I do have a recording of him singing Alfredo in Italian (with the young Teresa Stratas as Violetta) in Munich and he sounds fine in the language.
\"A beautiful voice is not enough.\" Maria Callas

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