Great moments in opera: Eugene Onegin

July 17, 2011

Tchaikovsky is not among my favourite composers, and his operas, while maintaining a place at the fringe of the repertoire, are not among his most popular compositions; consequently I had felt no particular desire to hear them. This week, however, the opportunity to view a performance of Eugene Onegin presented itself, and my curiosity got the better of me. I was pleasantly surprised: it is a lovely opera, gorgeously orchestrated (as one would expect coming from this composer), with graceful, if not quite memorable, melodies, interesting characters, and a good story. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the intimate feel of the piece: it is essentially a domestic drama and, since the music is written to scale, the singers do not have to bellow to be heard, giving the whole opera a chamber music ambience and a comparative lack of artifice. I am really very glad that I heard it.

The story, based on a novel by Pushkin, centers around a young man named Eugene Onegin whose haughtiness brings tragedy and sorrow upon his friends, and eventually upon himself as well. A young woman, Tatyana, falls in love with him, but he rejects her in favour of a dalliance with her sister, who is, however, engaged to Onegin’s best friend. Inflamed by jealousy, his friend challenges him to a duel, and is killed. Years later Onegin finds that Tatyana has married well, and he is overcome with regret at the thought of the life of happiness that might have been his, had he not spurned her affections.

The most famous scene of the opera — the only scene I had heard prior to this week — is the so-called “Letter Scene”, in which Tatyana, having fallen in love with Onegin, spends a sleepless night writing a letter in which she confesses her love to him. The scene is a long monologue, running to about 20 minutes, but here is a portion of it. Mirella Freni sings the part, and English subtitles are included.

For the record, the DVD I watched was this one. Judging by the cover it doesn’t look like much, but I thought it was great.

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