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(Bolshoi Theatre, 2000)

Irina Udalova (mezzo) ... Larina
Maria Gavrilova (sop) ... Tatyana
Yelena Novak (alto) ... Olga
Galina Borisova (mezzo) ... Fillipyevna
Vladimir Redkin (baritone) ... Eugene Onegin
Nikolai Baskov (tenor) ... Lensky
Aik Martirosyan (bass) ... Prince Gremin
Alexander Arkhipov (tenor) ... Triquet
Vladimir Krasov (bass) ... A Captain
Alexander Korotky (bass) ... Zaretsky
Vladimir Sokolovsky (baritone) ... Leader of the peasant’s chorus
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre/Mark Ermler.

Recorded live at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow 18 October 2000.

TDK DV-OPEON [2 DVDs: 157 mins]

Here is a welcome traditional production of Tchaikovsky's well loved Lyric Scenes (1879), which were adapted by the composer and Konstantin Shilovsky from Pushkin's 'verse novel'; familiarity with the original could have been taken for granted with Russia's 1880s operagoers.

The libretto's episodic snapshots structure is very different from the dramatic continuity expected in most operas and whilst Eugene Onegin has lent itself to numerous successful productions in many inventive fashions it is so much a work of its period that no one should be troubled by the Bolshoi's renouncing all the innovations and 'concepts' that today's theatre directors bring to opera, encouraging fans to travel the world 'collecting' productions.

This is a revival of a 1944 production which wears its age well, recorded for TV on one night in 2000, obviously without any opportunity for 'patching'. The huge stage accommodates spacious sets, tall birch trees for Tatyana's put-down by Onegin, a substantial mansion for entertaining the Larin estate workers at the fateful ball, etc.

Naturalistic sets and period costumes they are, but it is all a very artificial theatrical show, with every chance taken for set-piece dances and to show off the Bolshoi's huge chorus and troupe of dancers. And this TV film takes you right into the theatre to join the vociferous audience, which takes every opportunity to noisily interrupt the proceedings with prolonged applause at curtain-up and after each aria, sometimes in places where that would normally be discouraged. That may be a decisive consideration for some purchasers. It didn't bother us; the final curtain calls - not choreographed at all as is usual nowadays, had everyone looking faintly awkward, gradually disappearing behind a mountain of bouquets; the applause continued forever.

The orchestra is not overshadowed by close miked singers and balance is generally good, allowing one to savour the superb management of the score by Mark Ermler, who together give this set a basis of great unshowy distinction, on its own a sufficient reason to add this version to your DVD collection.

The casting is from strength, even if the names are new to you as they were for me. The leads are taken strongly and nothing jars. Some minor characters and little touches took my notice; e.g. an affectionate cameo for the French singer M. Triquet, less caricatured than often. After the fracas Tatyana has escaped up in the balcony and Triquet can be seen up there oblivious of it all, absorbed in his verses...

Contrary to the reaction of at least one other reviewer, we were a little disappointed by the last Act. The setting probably looked magnificent in the theatre, but we thought the prevailing white of decoration and women's costumes a mistake, and there was some odd placements of the principals on stage. Onegin's gave his retrospective monologue after returning from his travels sitting at a table centre stage (he's more usually seen lurking out of sorts at the side) and Prince Gremin - no old campaigner bearing his battle wounds here - sat unmoving at the same table singing unmovingly to the audience right through his aria about married bliss in old age.

A special feature is the 'duets', moments of reflection with pairs of singers pursuing their separate thoughts simultaneously - ideal for opera with subtitles. These little episodes can be gently humorous (Larina and Fillipyevna reminiscing in the first scene) or poignant (Lensky and Onegin wishing the clock could be put back after the challenge has been accepted and sharing the same words of regret, standing back to back just before the fatal shot) and Onegin, sharing the same words of love with Tatyana, in the final scene before he gets his comeuppance and she finally rejects him decisively.

The camera work is unsubtle, likewise the lighting, but the sound quality is good enough, if variable and not up to 2000 European standards.

I usually regret Olga's disappearance after the fateful birthday party, never more so than here with the personable contralto Yelena Novak, whose distinctive low register contrasted with her flighty, hedonistic personality (should Tchaikovsky have reversed the voice settings for the serious and frivolous sisters?). I've always just assumed that Olga'd got on with her life, after the minor setback of losing her fiancé in the quarrel and the duel. Right indeed, as I reminded myself by checking the irony of Pushkin's sequel, reproduced below from the delightful illustrated text generously made accessible on the Web; something all lovers of Tchaikovsky's opera should study:


BOOK VII Stanzas VII - X
© Oxquarry Books Ltd

My poor Lensky. Not long did Olga
Grieving for you, weep for your fate.
Alas! Young girls keep faith no longer,
Their sorrow has an uncertain date.
Another came and took her fancy,
Another who swamped her very soul
With love's sweet lore and flattery.
A Cossack who bewitched her utterly;
A Cossack she loves to the very core.

And now beneath the altar standing,
With modest grace under the wedding crown,
She stands and blushes, her eyes cast down,
Her head is bowed, her heartbeat skips,
And a light smile flutters upon her lips.

And soon the ringing voice of Olga
In the Larin's home is heard no more.
The Cossack a slave to his army life
Must take to the regiment his new found wife - -

Some other Eugene Onegins on Musical Pointers :

ENO; OHP; WNO BBC 4 film (plus Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin)


© Peter Grahame Woolf