Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Honest" Onegin

From left to right, from rural to royal: Met Opera, Oct. 2013
(Reflection on the presentation of EUGENE ONEGIN by the Metropolitan Opera, live in HD, October 5.)

Interviewed during the Met Opera's HD broadcast program, conductor Valery Gergiev deflected an invitation to wax eloquent about the luscious romanticism of Tchaikovsky's music, saying simply that Tchaikovsky's music for Eugene Onegin is "beautiful and honest."  I've heard of beautiful music, natch, but "honest?"  Yet, the more I think back on the opera, the more I understand what he means.

The arc of the story is simple, as adapted by the composer from Pushkin's novel in verse:  na├»ve Tatiana confesses passionate love for Onegin, a worldly neighbor, but he rejects her in a cool, civil manner.  A season later, Onegin's flirtation with Tatiana's married sister results in his dueling with Tatiana's brother-in-law Lensky, who dies.  Escaping the scandal abroad, Onegin returns years later to find Tatiana married to a Prince, now a mature woman, elegant, self-confident, and wise.  He falls passionately in love with her.  She rejects him. 

So, what makes Tchaikovsky's treatment of this material "honest?"   Operatic "honesty" might refer to a composer's sticking to the pure line of the story, unadulterated by extraneous ballets and choruses added just to please the audience.   It might also refer to the composer's eschewing showy vocal technique that might draw more attention to the singer than to the character.

Tchaikovsky does embroider that pure arc.  Strictly speaking, we don't need the first twenty or so minutes of the opera, during which Tatiana's mother and a servant reminisce about an early romance and a chorus of rustics celebrates the fall harvest.  We could do away with some big company dances at the two parties.  We don't need the aging French fop who sings Tchaikovsky's parody of insipid lyrics.  We could drop the tenor Lensky's couple of arias about memories and regrets, since he's just a plot device to explain Onegin's years away.  We could lose the bass aria for the Prince, who sings how much Tatiana has brought to his life, and how he adores her;  he is, after all, just a minor character. 

After such cuts, we'd still see a good show.  We'd see the young men Lensky and Onegin comparing the coquettish sister to introspective Tatiana; Tatiana's wonderful scene first preparing restlessly for bed, then drafting letters to Onegin, crumpling up each draft until she writes a direct and hopeful confession of love, which she completes at sunrise and sends by messenger before she can change her mind; Tatiana's standing silent while Onegin lectures her about the insurmountable differences between them; the duel; and then Onegin's awakening at the Prince's ball, with the private duet that follows.    

Yet the story would not be honest without the social and thematic context that these "extras" provide. 
When Tatiana's mother and her servant sing the refrain, "God sends us habit instead of happiness," it's homely wisdom that comes back at the end when regal Tatiana leaves passion behind in favor of contentment, duty, responsibility, and affection for a Prince who loves her. 

Tchaikovsky's dances, so popular that I was humming going into the theatre,  provide in themselves a social panorama against which we can see Tatiana's rise.  At first her world is shabby-genteel, characterized by rustic choruses, the energetic polonaise (in somewhat cramped quarters),  and the heel-kicking cotillion dance at the party celebrating Tatiana's name day.  Yet she is already set apart from that world, as we see by that French dandy's song for .  In a roomful of people who don't seem to know the difference between fashionable and elegant, she endures his first verse with polite attention, and the second with growing embarrassment. 

The grand waltz that begins the final act provides us a background of true elegance, where Onegin wanders aimlessly, drinking, bored.  When Tatiana enters with her entourage, we see the difference between true "class" in the sense of "nobility," and what Onegin has -- a mere sense of privilege and entitlement.

There's another kind of honesty in Onegin.  Tchaikovsky lavishes attention on these characters because he loves them.  He gives them room to speak for themselves, letting the music swell and subside, grow dense with agitated action or light with just an instrument or two in accompaniment, as fits their reminiscences and expressions of contentment, affection, or regret.   Because of the time that Tchaikovsky takes to let Lensky speak, when Lensky dies, we feel the loss as acutely as Onegin;  when Tatiana returns to her husband, we know she has made a good choice.  Only her selfish sister and that damn Frenchman fail to warm our hearts.

I've seen three productions of Onegin, now.  Atlanta Opera performed it at the Atlanta Civic Center a few years ago.  The Met projected an abstract production in HD, using little more to create scenery than autumn leaves, chairs, a couple of carpets, and snow.  Now we have the Met's new production, with more literal settings, setting tongues wagging about the drabness of Tatiana's country home.  It seemed appropriate to me.  All three have sent me out overwhelmed by affection for the characters, wonderment at the deftness of the storytelling, and appreciation for the variety, expressiveness, beauty and, yes, the honesty, of Tchaikovsky's music.

Honesty means following all the elements of the story within the parameters of the form wherever these take the composer.  

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