Understanding the Tchaikovsky Enigma: Evgene Onegin at Santa Cecilia

ItalyItaly Tchaikovsky: Evgene Onegin, opera in three acts in concert form, Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome, 9.11.2011 (JB)

Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg – conductor: Valery Gergiev
Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia – Chorus Master: Ciro Visco
The Widow Larina – Svetlana Volkova
Her daughters, Tatiana – Irina Mataeva and Olga – Ekaterina Semenchuk
The Nanny Filippevna – Larisa Shevchenko
Evgene Onegin – Vladislav Sulimsky
Vladimir Lenski – Sergey Semishkur
Prince Gremin – Sergey Alkashkin
Triquet, a Frenchman – Andrei Popov

If there were not Schubert, Tchaikovsky would be a world leader in pathos. If there were not Verdi, Tchaikovsky would be a world leader in melodrama. Can a composer who has such impressive top second places in such important categories also have a first place in another? Maybe yes.

To understand this other quality it is necessary to enter the profoundly pessimistic dark night of the Russian soul. This is shaped by learning how to live with the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth of destiny – the ebb and flow and mysterious universal energies of which we are all more slaves than masters. To what degree slaves, and what degree masters, defines the very business of melodrama. Both Pushkin and Dostoevsky were superior to Tchaikovsky in their charting of these waters. But that is to take us into poetry and the novel. In music, Tchaikovsky is the Emperor of this realm.

Consider the valseand the polonaise in Evgene Onegin. Both belong to the world of the dance. And anyway, as every schoolgirl knows, Tchaikovsky reigns supreme in the world of dance. And both dances sweep the listener along with the familiar rhythms of their charm and grace. But listen more closely. Both are shot through (coloured with) pathos and melodrama. And there are moments when these colours outshine the ebb and flow of the melodic line. To be sure, both dances are oases in the more bitter-sweet drama taking place. But as Tchaikovsky instinctively knows, ill winds blow even through the oases. Destiny, by its very definition, never lets up.

Valery Gergiev conducts these dances as a pause in the unfolding tragedy, a bit of light relief. That is a mistake. For reasons I have tried to show, they are an integral part of the drama. Set against this mistake, I am delighted to point out an enormous improvement in Gergiev’s own home orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. Their wind section, in places, outshines Santa Cecilia: an oboist whom Tchaikovsky keeps very busy all night and a flautist and bassoonist who are of near excellence.

Gergiev’s worst mistake was to conduct the entire opera molto moderato. There was no real allegro. It is as though he is afraid to let the music follow its own self-declared destiny. Moderato has no place in Evgene Onegin. This music speaks the language of ebb and flow, flood and drought. But not in Gergiev’s reading. Boris Godunov freezes the listener by its static moments and I admired Gergiev’s conducting of the Mussorgsky opera. But not of the Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky wrote Tatiana’s letter scene a long time before writing the opera. He then built the entire opera round Tatiana (much in the same way as Verdi built his opera round Lady Macbeth). Tatiana is in every scene except the duel scene. It is essential that she has a full grasp of the drama as well as the music. Irina Mataeva sounded as though she was singing her week’s laundry list. She gave not the merest hint of understanding what was happening to her. Such lack of involvement is alien to Tchaikovsky. And there is worse: she has an unfortunate tendency (not uncommon in some Russian schools of singing) to slide onto the notes from underneath, never quite arriving at the right intonation.

Tatiana’s sister Olga is a thankless role. And it was given a thankless performance by Ekaterina Semenchuk. Ms Semenchuk’s towering height suggested we might be in for a promising contralto performance (Russia is the last country in the world still producing real contraltos). But it was not to be. Sventlana Volkova (the widow Larina) and Larisa Shevchenko (the nanny) both made a decent stab at these small roles though neither had vocal distinction.

The vocal star of the show was Sergey Semishkur as Lenski. He gave an impressive account of his aria, winning the evening’s ovation, even if Nicolai Gedda could have taught him a thing or two about style. In fact, it was the evening for tenors. Andrei Popov also delivered the coquettish arietta of the Frenchman Triquet with wit and charm.

Prince Gremin’s aria is the envy of every bass but Sergei Alksashkin dispatched it to the cleaners, missing notes here and there. Vladislav Sulimsky talked his way through the role of Onegin, then surprised everyone by actually singing his penultimate note – the only one he sang all night.

The chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia were crisp and precise under their thorough master, Ciro Visco, though Gergiev made no efforts to reproduce the near and distant effects which the composer requests.

Jack Buckley