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
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.
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
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.
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.