Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Tanglewood, 2008

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Renée Fleming Sings Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Photo Hilary Scott
Renée Fleming Sings Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Photo Hilary Scott

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,  Eugene Onegin
Tanglewood, Saturday, August 2, 8:30 p.m.
The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor

Renée Fleming, soprano – Tatiana
Ekaterina Semenchuck, mezzo-soprano – Olga
Peter Mattei, baritone – Onegin
Garrett Sorenson, tenor – Lensky
Vitalij Kowaljow, bass – Prince Gremin
Tony Stevenson – Triquet
Wendy White, mezzo-soprano – Larina
Barbara Dever, mezzo-soprano – Filipyevna
Alan Dunbar, bass (TMC Vocal Fellow) – Zaretsky
Evan Boyer, bass (TMC Vocal Fellow) – Captain
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

One can only say that Tanglewood was incredibly lucky in landing James Levine’s distinguished counterpart at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, to replace him for the annual TMC opera concert performance. No conductor could have managed the performance with a keener appreciation of its drama, the melancholy lyricism of its music, the lucidity of Tchaikovsky’s score, and the energy and bite of its climaxes. Sir Andrew has always shown an extraordinary ability to respond to many sides of complex works, and this past Saturday, relatively fresh from conducting Onegin at the Lyric this spring, he produced a rich and balanced reading of the score as well as astonishing playing from the TMC Orchestra. His insight and musicianship were not the only reasons that this was one of the truly unforgettable nights at Tanglewood—or nights of opera anywhere—but it is fitting to honor this extraordinary conductor and musician who is heard all too seldom on the East Coast.
Tchaikovsky’s Onegin isn’t the rarity it once was in the West, especially America, but for many years it was almost as haunting a legend as Berlioz’ Les Troyens, accessible only on murky Soviet recordings. One obstacle was its Russian text, which was unmanageable for most western singers until language became more a part of their training; and Russian singers, who have understandably dominated the roles, only began to trickle over the Iron Curtain less than a generation ago, becoming freely available after 1991. When the Metropolitan Opera gave a handful of performances in 1920-1921 (Its U.S. stage premiere), it was sung in Italian, and when they took it up again in 1957-59 and 1963-64 it was sung in English. Only in October 1977 was it first sung in the original Russian at the Met—by an almost entirely western cast. Since then, it has enjoyed a fairly steady position in the Met repertoire.

Although one of the primary factors which makes it such a great opera, is the presence of at least parts of Pushkin’s poem in the libretto, as well as the tight relationship between text and music in its economical story-telling, it has been something of a conductor’s opera. Dimitri Mitropoulos was the force behind the Met productions of the mid-1950’s, and James Levine initiated the performance of the late 1970’s. The BSO is no stranger to Onegin. Seiji Ozawa was a great champion of the opera, and he conducted concert performances with the BSO in 1974 and 1976. Andrew Davis’ keen interest in Tchaikovsky’s operas was made clear enough when he made the Queen of Spades his debut performance as music director of the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2000. His Glyndebourne Onegin of the early 1990’s (available on DVD) is remembered as one of the Festival’s most brilliant moments, just this past spring he turned to Eugene Onegin at the Lyric.

The excellences of Sir Andrew’s reading revealed themselves in the first bars. He produced extraordinarily clear textures from the TMC orchestra. Throughout the evening, they played with all the lightness and clarity of a first-rate pit orchestra. I’ve never heard such a sound in the Music Shed before—and the first and second violins were grouped together at the left—which usually muddies the sound appreciably. The violins had a wonderful limpid brightness and the lower strings were rich and powerful, but very tight in ensemble and vibrato, creating a splendid resonance around the deepest notes. Sir Andrew took the opening bars of the introduction rather deliberately, enlivening the phrases with very clearly marked rests and a strong rhythmic snap, especially in the syncopated phrases—which gave the music a defined shape and a nervous, brooding quality. The effect in the dialogues of various string groups was marvelous. In the ensuing faster section he brought a measured urgency in his finely paced accellerando. The urgent string passages which Tchaikovsky uses to heighten the emotional pitch were all the more powerful for being disciplined in ensemble and phrased with hairpin expression. The a capella chorus was equally amazing for its clarity and balance—and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’ Russian was quite convincing. The Chorus sang in character but avoided the plumminess and wide vibrato of Russian choruses. This splendid orchestral and choral execution continued throughout the opera. Sir Andrew brought off the big dance scenes with all the energy and flair of Beecham lollipops, much to the delight of the audience. We all know what to expect from the TMC Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, but this was truly outstanding even for their standards.

This gave the performance a distinct Mozartean quality, and, given Sir Andrew’s distinguished reputation as a Mozartean, it is more than reasonable to assume that it was  deliberate. (James Levine, who so wisely scheduled this opera for the TMC, also has a keen ear for the Mozart in Tchaikovsky.) During the first ball scene, as Onegin monopolizes Olga and provokes the quarrel with Lensky, I was especially conscious of how Tchaikovsky had Don Giovanni’s horrendous party for Zerlina and Masetto in mind in writing it—one of the more interesting hommages in nineteenth century music.

The singers consistently sang on a very high level with one exception, Renée Fleming, who, as Tatiana, surpassed all the limitations of even the best and gave one of those performances which anyone lucky enough to have been there should be talking about for the rest of their lives. Every bar she sang was stunningly beautiful and intensely focused on her characterization of the infatuated girl. There was almost no trace of effort or compromise in her production. Even the enormous, rather distracted, and badly behaved Saturday night audience held their breath during her truly amazing rendition of Tatiana’s letter aria. For my part I was transfixed, bar by bar, as Ms. Fleming gave the fullest realization to text, character, expression, and musical form. I could hardly blame the audience for going wild, as much as I share Sir Andrew’s desire to let the action flow on. On the other hand, in this contemporary manifestation of the grand tradition in opera, we cannot help being aware that we are witnessing a vocally, intellectually, and emotionally mature woman imitating the behavior of a teenage girl in the throes of her first infatuation. To an opera-goer in 2008 that consummate act of imitation creates it own disjunction and distances us from the character—all the better to admire Tchaikovsky’s and Ms. Fleming’s artistry!

After that, everyone had to have his or her ovation, and in fact it was all well-deserved. The Swedish baritone Peter Mattei sang Onegin with finely pointed characterization and a handsome voice that has a lyric openness and brightness, but also a dark bottom and considerable weight when he needs it. This brightness and his bel canto style worked brilliantly in the part, reminding us that Onegin is a very young man, only in his mid-twenties, although we are more accustomed to hearing much heavier baritones in the part. (Mattei clearly has everything he needs to sing a splendid Don Giovanni. In fact he will be singing the part this spring at the Met.) If his Onegin is more of a common bounder than a Romantic anti-hero, it is a perfectly justifiable interpretation.

Garrett Sorenson, who replaced an ailing Ramón Vargas on short notice sang a splendid Lensky. He had a lyrical, Italianate brightness, an appropriately elegant sense of line and phrasing, as well as a strong, dark bottom, which gave all the more power to his later scenes. His efforts earned him some of the more unbridled applause, and we can hope we hear him again at the Met or the Lyric soon. Ekaterina Semenchuck, a thoroughly characteristic dusky mezzo, sang Olga, and Vitalij Kowaljow brought a somber, almost pitch-like resonance to his important aria about love. All the minor parts were memorable in their own ways.

All the singers, with no exception, sang with a full awareness of the nature of Tchaikovsky’s vocal lines, in which the lyrical shape of the melody is constructed over a literary form originating or replicated from Pushkin’s verse. This demands to be delivered intelligibly and with meaning.

If anything was missing in this magnificent performance of Tchaikovsky’s finest work, it was a sense of structure and flow. For this the composer, who conceived the opera as a series of “lyrical scenes” and the enthusiastic audience must share the blame. This was superstar weekend at Tanglewood, after all, when enormous crowds gather for inspiration from the likes of Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma, and not everyone is acquainted with concert hall etiquette. People were still chatting and rushing into their seats well into the first act chorus. On the other hand, one can hardly blame their response to Renée Fleming’s splendid letter aria and the general approval it established for the rest of the cast and the big set-pieces for the whole ensemble. Still, Tchaikovsky achieved an extraordinary balance of music, text, and narrative, which is best enjoyed with total immersion.

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