Few opera-goers forget their first encounter with Tchaikovsky’s Pushkin masterpiece. It has the impact of first love, sweeping you up in its evocation of romantic longing, its idealised view of country estates and imperial balls, and, yes, its heartbreaking music. I still have vivid memories of my first Onegin 35 years ago at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal. Scottish Opera’s production, conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, was one of the young David Pountney’s most successful stagings, with John Shirley-Quirk in the title role and Lilian Sukis as Tatyana. What I remember most is looking down from the upper circle into the pit during the Letter Scene, and seeing how Tchaikovsky passes its main motif round the principal woodwinds and harp: mesmerising.
I fell in love with the opera a second time in Prague in the mid-1980s, when Yuri Temirkanov brought the Kirov Opera (now known by its original name, the Mariinsky Theatre) to the Spring Festival there. This was the late communist era. Unlike the Kirov Ballet, the opera company from Russia’s second city was little known in the west at that time, but its traditions were immaculately preserved. What a revelation to hear the orchestra’s fruity brass, its proud body of strings, the big voices, the immaculate ensemble, the sense of ownership.
In retrospect, it’s astonishing that it took until 1974 for Eugene Onegin to be recorded in the west – by Georg Solti at London’s Royal Opera House, with a German Onegin (Bernd Weikl), a Polish Tatyana (Teresa Kubiak) and an English Lensky (Stuart Burrows). Hard-driven in the Solti style, it’s not exactly idiomatic. Since then there have been only three audio recordings with western casts, one of which – Charles Mackerras’s with Thomas Hampson and Kiri te Kanawa – is sung in English.
Despite the opera’s universal popularity, Soviet-era recordings long dominated the market and still set the standard, because Russian voices generally sound better in Russian music.
An essential starting point is the 1955 Melodiya set with the young Galina Vishnevskaya, featuring the Bolshoi ensemble under Boris Khaikin. Despite mono sound, it captures a Russian style stretching back to Tchaikovsky’s time. Vishnevskaya, the personification of the thoughtful country girl, sounds suitably fresh-voiced – noticeably more so than her 1970 remake, in which she sounds “grander”.
The Khaikin recording documents the Lensky of Sergei Lemeshev, one of the greatest of all Russian tenors. An equally celebrated tenor, Ivan Kozlovsky, features on an earlier (1937/1944) Bolshoi recording, now on Naxos Historical – an invaluable resource for voice and style specialists.
The late Soviet era was well served by Mark Ermler’s 1979 version with Yuri Mazurok in the title role, Tamara Milashkina’s Tatyana, Vladimir Atlantov’s stentorian Lensky and Evgeny Nesterenko’s classic Gremin. Ermler also conducts Arthaus Musik’s DVD of the old Bolshoi production, featuring Marina Gavrilova’s Tatyana: the performance looks handsome but dated. Mazurok’s Onegin makes an equally pleasing impression on the 1990 Sony recording from Sofia, though this is more treasurable for Nicolai Gedda’s Lensky, one of his signature roles. What a pity he didn’t record it earlier in his career.
Not every Russian Onegin is recommendable: the latest, recorded live by the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, has decent enough singers but there are some cuts and the playing is less than first-rate. Similarly, not all western singers are inferior.
James Levine’s 1987 Dresden recording has Mirella Freni’s cherishable Tatyana, recorded a little late, when she was over 50. I prefer Semyon Bychkov’s 1993 version with the Orchestre de Paris. This is unusual in having a light-voiced Tatyana in Nuccia Focile – the most girlish on record, more in accord with Tchaikovsky’s original conception than the “prima donna” role it quickly became (it’s easy to forget that the opera was written as a sequence of “lyric scenes” for students).
Focile’s touching performance is matched by Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s glorious Onegin and Neil Shicoff’s passionate Lensky. It remains the most acceptable all-round audio recommendation. On DVD, I retain a soft spot for Daniel Barenboim’s 2007 Salzburg production with Peter Mattei and Anna Samuil, cheekily but imaginatively directed by Andrea Breth. Graham Vick’s 1994 Glyndebourne production, with Elena Prokina’s Tatyana, is also worth a look.
The real story of Onegin is the number of classic Tatyanas whose interpretations have not been preserved – Ileana Cotrubas, Elisabeth Söderström and, a personal favourite, Julia Varady. Anna Netrebko has yet to record it: that’s one to which we can surely look forward.
This is part of an occasional series on building a library of classical music.
For more ‘All the Best’ round-ups from Andrew Clark: