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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin (1879) [141.43]
Nuccia Focile – Tatiana (soprano)
Dimitri Hvorostovsky – Eugene Onegin (baritone)
Sarah Walker – Madame Larina (mezzo)
Olga Borodina – Olga (mezzo)
Irina Arkhipova – Filipyevna (contralto)
Neil Shicoff – Lensky (tenor)
Alexander Anisimov – Prince Gremin (bass)
Francis Egerton – Monsieur Triquet (tenor)
Herve Hennequin – A captain (baritone)
Sergei Zadvorny – Zaretsky
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
Orchestre de Paris/Semyon Bychkov
Recorded 1993
PHILIPS 475 7017 [70.36 + 71.07]


It is amazing how highly regarded recordings can simply evaporate from the catalogue. On its first release this 1993 recording of Eugene Onegin received high praise from Alan Blyth in the Gramophone, but was subsequently allowed to disappear. The good news is that Philips has chosen to bring it back at a highly affordable mid-price. Tchaikovsky’s opera is not the easiest to bring off on disc and it is heart-warming that this fine set is now available again.

Too often in the opera house the opening scene of the opera can seem rather bitty as it stops and starts rather too often. Here on disc Bychkov has a wonderful grasp of the ebb and flow of the music and the scene flows quite naturally. He never rushes but never lingers over-much. The whole of Act 1 is beautifully paced and constructed; one of the joys of this set is Bychkov’s shaping of the opera’s structure.

It helps, of course, that he has a wonderfully balanced cast. The Russian and non-Russians seem to blend admirably and form a fine ensemble and to my untutored ear the Russian language, as sung by the non-Russians, seems entirely satisfactory.

Sarah Walker makes a dignified Madame Larina, sounding young enough to convincingly have two young teenage daughters rather than the elderly middle-aged matron that is often portrayed. This attention to the sound quality of voices is something which makes this recording so admirable. Hvorostovsky brings just the right mix of warmth and disdain to his opening scenes. His Act 1 rejection of Tatiana contains just the right amount of warmth; this Onegin is correctly detached rather than nasty. It helps that Hvorostovky phrases the music with such fine distinction and has a lovely voice, to boot.

It could be argued, that Hvorostovsky was born to play Onegin; the revelation here is Nuccia Focile as Tatiana. Focile brings to the role a wonderfully focused tone quality with something of an edge, but sounds convincingly young. In Act 1 hers is a believably passionate young woman; without visual aids, Tatiana on disc can often sound a little too mature. Like Hvorostovky, Focile phrases the music beautifully. But I did miss that added sense of dark intensity that the best Russian sopranos can bring to the role. In the Letter scene this is a Tatiana, whose passion is still rather controlled, lacking in the ultimate abandonment.

Neil Shicoff’s otherwise admirable Lensky perhaps sounds a little too old; his outbursts in the first scene of Act 2 (Madame Larina’s party) are wonderfully emotional but sound a little too much the older man. This is a slight problem with all the principals in this scene, they all sound a little too mature and sensible. You have to really believe that these are young, impulsive people and I’m not sure I do. Still, if you are prepared to live with that quibble, the drama of the act is played out stunningly under Bychkov’s control.

The duel scene is masterly; here the maturity of the two singers comes into its own and you get a striking depth of feeling. Onegin and Lensky’s short duet, just before the duel itself, was one of the set’s highlights. Both singers phrase the music so beautifully and achieve a chillingly spine tingling effect.

Tchaikovsky gives the singer playing Tatiana something of a challenge, come Act 3. All too often, you read reviews of a performance where critics comment that a singer in the role was unimpressive in the earlier acts, but came into her own in Act 3. For a performance of the opera to work properly, the singer playing Tatiana must find a way to link the two halves of her character, the youthful and the mature. This Focile does admirably. She remains the same passionate woman we heard in the earlier acts, simply matured a little from her earlier self. It is only in the closing pages that I felt that Focile and Hvorostovsky really let go and a way that I would have liked to have heard earlier.

The smaller roles are all superbly taken. Francis Egerton makes a charming Triquet, and Alexander Anisimov gives a moving account of Gremin’s aria. Irina Arkhipova is near ideal as Filipyevna, a character that can too often become a little tiresome.

The Orchestre de Paris play admirably for Bychkov, the various dance interludes are delightful whilst still remaining part of the drama.

I have no hesitation a recommending this recording, especially as you can get the set - complete with libretto - for around Ł18.

Robert Hugill






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