High drama with Tchaikovsky

I have deliberated long and hard before writing this post, but I can put it off no longer.

My all time favourite opera is ‘Eugene Onegin’ by the great Russian romantic, Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The reason I never tire of it, is that it is an opera which captures all our human desires, vices and frailties, of love, passion, pride, jealousy, humiliation, and regret. Based on Pushkin’s tale, Tchaikovsky fills the work with the best melodies imaginable, but it is the final ten minutes I am itching to share with you: I cannot think of a better finish in any opera, musically and dramatically. This closing scene is full of longing, urgency, tenderness – and just when you think it’s all going to turn out well, you are left shattered and emotionally drained.

Very briefly, the story is about a young and lowly girl, Tatyana, who pours out her heart in a letter to Onegin (itself a wonderful scene); but who has her courage coolly and haughtily rejected, dismissed as a youthful crush. Jump ahead a number of years (here I go again with my bite-size synopsis, I’d be terrible at programme notes), and Onegin reappears at court, having excluded himself from society after killing his closest friend, Lenski, in a duel, driven by jealousy over a ridiculous misunderstanding. Shock horror: at a grand ball Onegin sees that the once lowly Tatyana is now no such thing, she is married to an elderly Prince Gremin.

In an instant, Onegin realizes what a massive error he made all those years ago. He is smitten.

In a neat act of symmetry, he pens her a similar letter, imploring Tatyana to see him. She agrees, and this final scene is a roller-coaster. The clip I have selected has Renee Fleming as Tatyana and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin. The translation is in French, which may be a little unhelpful, but this account is so perfect that it’s just not worth compromising. The genius of the music, and the changing keys, will tell you clearly what is going on: in short, she tells him “you had your chance, you treated me appallingly, so what do you think you’re doing having a go now, just because I’m a passport to society?” Onegin protests his love, and in a sublime moment (7:00), she concedes she loves him.

Onegin thinks he’s cracked it. Not so fast, sunshine: despite giving glimmers of hope, Tatyana has other plans. Listen out for the remarkably clever way in which Tchaikovsky twice unexpectedly shifts Tatyana into the major key in order to take control and affirm her resolve. It’s too late, there’s no going back, she belongs to someone else and that all there is to it. The urgency and desperation escalate, but she sticks to her guns, and Onegin is left abandoned. This is a dramatic and musical combination at its very best; the acting and singing of the highest quality, on a simple set where nothing else is allowed to get in the way.

If you’ve not heard it before, it’s worth more than one listen, it will grow on you. And once it does, you will be as smitten as Onegin. It’s pure nectar.

 

 

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