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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin, op.24 Lyrical scenes in three acts (seven scenes). (1877-1878)
Libretto by the composer and K. Shilovsky, after Pushkin.
Tatyana - Elena Prokina (soprano);
Eugene Onegin - Wojciech Drabowicz (baritone);
Lensky - Martin Thompson (tenor);
Olga - Louise Winter (contralto);
Madame Larina - Yvonne Minton (soprano);
Filippyevna - Ludmilla Filatova (mezzo);
Monsieur Triquet – John Fryatt (tenor);
Gremin - Frode Olsen (baritone);
Zaretsky - Christopher Thornton-Holmes (baritone);
Glyndeboune Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Director: Graham Vick; Designer: Richard Hudson; Lighting Designer: Thomas Webster; Choreographer: Ron Howell
Filmed by NVC ARTS for Channel Four Television Corporation at the Glyndebourne Festival, July 1994.
Directed for video by Humphrey Burton
Picture format NTSC 4:3. Colour. Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. DVD Regions 2,3,4,5.
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese.
WARNER MUSIC VISION DVD VIDEO 0630-14014-2 [154.00]

 

For all the brilliance with which Tchaikovsky establishes the inevitability of the action it is his ability to expose the inner thoughts and torments of the central characters that, in the right hands, makes Onegin such strong stuff.

In this production for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, director Graham Vick gives the work some much needed space for the action to unfold. This takes place in an organic manner established from the moment the curtain rises. The first refrain – a phrase that seemingly has no beginning and no end – sets out the repeating cycle of the action. As Madame Larina’s marriage turned from love to habit, so her daughter Tatyana moves from impetuous love for Onegin to acceptance of a lesser feeling for Gremin. In sticking fast to that feeling she ultimately shapes her fate along with that of Onegin. The seeds of the doom in Tchaikovsky’s lyrical scenes must be present from the start, with characters fully formed.

Yvonne Minton’s Madame Larina and Ludmilla Filatova’s nurse Filippyevna are women of a certain age. Despite their country roots they have experienced the world; albeit a small part of it. They sing with the air of knowledge gained at the price of happiness – that same air with which Tatyana sings at the work’s close.

Perhaps unwittingly, Lensky articulates the key difference between Onegin and himself – “like prose and poetry”. It is such difference in character that ultimately leads to Lensky’s fate. His music is at first of rural type, showing a charming though not uneducated aspect to his character. However, depth of feeling enters with his despair at Onegin’s actions during the Larin’s ball and – most tellingly – in his reflections on love and death just prior to the fateful duel. Martin Thompson articulates the role with ease and command of voice, whilst realising with affecting subtlety the sadness of Lensky’s situation. Wojciech Drabowicz as Onegin is not exactly dashing in appearance. Even on our first encounter with him there is the air of superiority that clouds his judgement with Tatyana, Olga and Lensky at various points in the action and that eventually seals his fate. This haughtiness of tone carries through in some small way to his singing, making for convincing characterisation. It serves to accentuate Onegin’s despair in the closing scene when all reserve is thrown aside as he finally gives in to the feelings of his heart.

The creation of Tatyana is the single greatest achievement in all of Tchaikovsky’s operas. The role requires a singing actress who can move with ease from the naivety of a girl to the maturity of a woman bearing the emotional scars of her feelings and of her encounters with Onegin. At the time of this production Elena Prokina was greatly praised for her assumption, and I find it a powerful one still. With impetuous feeling fuelled by reading, she gives her heart willingly, only to have the gift rebuked with a sermon at the first opportunity. The great ‘letter scene’ (Act I, scene ii) is searingly delivered, fully capturing the force of emotions that must out in her missive to Onegin. Yet his rebuke is but a counter-balance: the highs and lows of human emotion. It is in their scenes together that the real heart of the work lies. Neither Prokina, Drabowicz nor Vick disappoint. The action is all the more effective because it is given with simplicity of staging – the ball scenes come into their own here.

Such is the strength of characterisation amongst ‘lesser roles’ that Tchaikovsky clearly was at pains to make sure they were not overlooked in production. If he though Olga ‘very insipid’, we see this view taken up by Onegin in thinking her ‘blank-faced’. True, the part may not have a downfall comparable to Tatyana’s but Olga too is left to unhappiness. Louise Winter believably charts the course from frivolity to sorrow though she never seems insipid. John Fryatt as Monsieur Triquet makes the most of his character part: the stereotypical elderly French fop. Of greater gravitas is Frode Olsen’s Gremin. This is a man who we might believe has seen battle, yet in the autumn of his years is genuinely moved by the love he finds in Tatyana. His portrayal, delivered with sureness of vocal tone, makes Tatyana’s decision to remain faithful to him all the more believable.

In terms of dramatic pacing Eugene Onegin can be a difficult work to judge – it has simultaneously to maintain a stillness in the inevitability of its course, yet there are key moments when the action must be propelled forward. Andrew Davis, by and large, judges things well. He draws characterful playing from the London Philharmonic too. Though his reading might lack psychological insight through the orchestral accompaniment, he does at least allow Tchaikovsky’s thoughtful use of brass and woodwind textures to come through naturally. The patina of these instrumental colours adds immeasurably to any traversal of the score. The recording throughout is beyond reproach in terms of clarity, and the video direction, for the most part, shows what you’d want to see.

I can only agree with my colleague Robert Farr in his comments on another Warner DVD release:

My only criticism relates to the rather sparse Chapter Divisions and the lack of a booklet with some background to the opera and this memorable production. All that is provided is a brief resumé of the plot, with no cross-reference to the listed Chapters. This is printed on the inside face of the DVD cover.

Vick’s absorbing production combines with movingly sung and acted characterisations to produce a reading that demands serious attention.

Evan Dickerson

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