• 4 - Eugene Onegin: The Characters and their Voices (clips with best singers)

    Let's start with some notes on two historical Lenskys, the two best tenors of Imperial Russia.

    Of course, one of them is the great singer Leonid Sobinov. He was active from 1899 to 1914, and then after the Great War he was busy with being the Bolshoi's director, and little by little he just retired as a singer. On stage, he was a great mixture of the Italianate school of singing, and the Stanislavski's acting system.

    Listen to his flexible voice, a very fluent singing, always restrained and elegant.

    In 1934, he died but passed the torch to none other than Sergei Lemeshev.

    The other tenor is Dmitri Smirnov, who spent his career between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then the West after the October Revolution, though he would finally return to the Soviet Union. There was a great rivalry between Smirnov and Sobinov, but the latter was perhaps the most gifted singer, especially in roles like Lensky.

    In any case Smirnov was also a wonderful Lensky, as we can confirm listening to this aria, and his great vocal technique, though arguably he doesn't sound quite as modern as Sobinov:

    Lensky is not a role difficult for his top notes, in fact the range is from Eflat2 to A3, and most of the time he is singing between F2 and G3. What is necessary here is clarity, expressiveness, flexibility. One needs to transmit the passion of the young poet in love, more with love itself than with the reluctant Olga.

    In his arioso, accompanied by a glorious and Italianate melody, he naively confesses that he loves Olga, "as only the foolish heart of a poet can love", and the tenor must be able to convince the audience that he is indeed madly enamored of the young girl.

    His great aria, in E minor (the tonality of E is always associated with Lensky in the opera, he sings in E major his love for Olga, and in E minor his clash with Onegin at the Ball), is a triumph of the understatement, of an ineffable sadness, the farewell of a young man that is preparing to die. The melody is again wonderful, of a subtle beauty.

    Some of the best examples are:

    Lemeshev, the absolute reference:

    Ivan Kozlovsky, the alternative

    Vladimir Atlantov, a little bit too aggressive for the role

    Neil Shicoff, arguably the best non Russian to sing Lensky... in Russian

    Piotr Beczala, the best Lensky today

    The versions in German by Anton Dermota and Fritz Wunderlich are really good, too:

    Prince Gremin appears only in one scene, at the beginning of the Third Act, but it's a very important character in the opera. First, because of his marriage with Tatyana, with whom he is desperately in love, but mainly due to the glorious music Tchaikovsky wrote for him, which more than compensates for the little time on stage for the mature Prince. Sometimes a single aria can tell mountains of things.

    In every self-respecting Russian opera an aria for the bass must be included. In this case, with a standard range going from G-flat1 to E-flat3, and in the serene tonality of G-flat major, Gremin confides to Onegin, in a passionate but also proud way, his love for Tatyana.

    This is a very traditional aria, with Gremin speaking first about his sentiments, then praising Tatyana's virtues, and finally reprising the first stanza. The singer needs a noble voice, with good top notes for a bass, but must also be able to deliver his last words in an impressive manner.

    Some of the best Gremins on record are:

    Alexander Pirogov, with a low G-flat as powerful as his high E-flat: (his aria starts at 1:54:30)

    Mark Reizen, the absolute reference for the role:

    The impressive, imposing voice of Ivan Petrov:

    Another singer from the Mariinsky, a nice performance by Boris Shtokolov:

    The always solid, but a little bit unexciting in this role, Nicolai Ghiaurov:

    Refined and subtle delivery by Alexander Anisimov:

    Another interesting performance by Gottlob Frick (in German):

    Olga is perhaps the character less well shaped in the opera (a little more in the novel). She is basically a kind of factotum, making things happen, but not really involved in them. A self-centered and rather selfish person. Coquettish, a little vain, insubstantial... The real couples: Tatyana/Lensky and Olga/Onegin are mixed and this is the main reason behind the tragedy.

    There are not many opportunities for the alto (usually a mezzo) singing Olga to show off. First, the sad, beautiful and tender duet with Tatyana at the beginning of the opera, accompanied by the harp, and based on a melody by Alexander Alabiev, with a text from a youth poem by Pushkin (the scene is not in the novel).

    After the peasant's song, Olga reprises joyfully its tune, and then starts a brief arioso in E-flat major, masterfully designed by Tchaikovsky with the same melodic base, which just using the alto timbre and the proper accompaniment provides a perfect portrait of the young woman's banality. The rest of Olga's interventions in the opera are of little to no importance.

    Like in other Onegin's roles, perhaps the best Olga on record is the first, in this case Bronislava Zlatogorova:

    Again, the difficulty for singing the role of Onegin lies more in the need to keep purity of expression, of rendering the text alive, than in any vocal acrobatics. There is no need for a virtuoso baritone here, but a performer able to offer a convincing portrait of the ambivalent Onegin is needed.

    The first apparition of Onegin is in the quartet following the arrival of Lensky and himself to the Ms. Larina's mansion. It should count as an easy delivery, along with his final words with Tatyana and the old nurse, but somehow it should be credible that he is shrewd enough to prefer the dreamy Tatyana to the more spectacular Olga, and also capable of making Tatyana fall in love almost instantly.

    At the end of the First Act, there is Onegin's monologue. In B flat major, he seems to sing about himself in a very objective way, but each word is a dagger piercing Tatyana's heart. This must be sung without any overdramatics, just as if he would be chatting about the latest gossip in a St. Petersburg's saloon. After this, there won't be any love duet, Tatyana is left alone. The high F sung by many baritones at the end of the monologue is not written in the score.

    The other great Onegin's scene, well above the clash with Lensky, the duel and his arioso of the Third Act, is the final duet with Tatyana. Here, Onegin is perfectly aware he is playing his last card to conquer Tatyana, and instead of his studied indifference in the monologue, he should here produce sincere, passionate singing. In fact, he must become the mirror of the young Tatyana, in the letter scene. Tchaikovsky helps Oneging by using the same tonality in the right moment, that of D-flat major. This "anti-love duet" reaches its climax with the farewell of Tatyana, and the realization of his utter failure by Onegin, both singing at the top of their range in the opera.

    Nortsov, the first Onegin on record, and the model to surpass

    Belov, arguably the best ever Onegin, even if a little bit shallow:

    Mazurok, the prize for impassivity

    Weikl, an (ex) officer and a gentleman


    For contrast, in singing as well as in language, George London and Hermann Prey singing in German

    Tatyana Larina was clearly the most loved character in the opera for Tchaikovsky. The nature of the girl, of a dreamy and romantic disposition, and her transformation at the end into a mature and dutiful woman, were an open invitation for the composer to give free rein to his creativity.

    Like Ms. Larina, Tatyana believes in love at first sight, but in the end, she is prepared to follow the steps of her mother, and she could have finished the opera just repeating those lines from the duet between Ms. Larina and Filipyevna in the first scene:

    Habit is sent us from above
    in place of happiness.
    Yes, that is how it is:
    Habit is sent us from above,
    in place of happiness.

    This is perhaps the best role for a soprano in the Russian repertoire, and one of the most beautiful in any repertoire. Of course, the most celebrated moment is the unforgettable 'Letter scene'. It's not structured in any rigid manner, rather Tchaikovsky let the music flows as free and feverishly as the young girl in love. But at the same time, he studiously avoids any kind of vocal virtuosity, any ornament. The tessitura is quite central, comfortable, for a lyrical soprano, singing almost all the time between G3 and F4. The intention here is to blend together the purity delivering the verses, with the purity of the melody, and the purity of Tatyana.

    Different is the older Tatyana of the last scene, and different is the music, and the way she sings that music, more angular, with sharp edges: "Onegin, I shall remain firm". And then, "Farewell for ever!" with a high B included, her top note in all the opera.

    Galina Vishnevskaya, the definitive Tatyana

    Mirella Freni is incapable of bad singing, and she is a very good Tatyana, though not near the best

    Anna-Tomowa Sintow, a great artist, but not a young girl in love

    Renée Fleming, the best non-Russian ever to sing the role

    A modern one, Kristine Opolais:

    Leontyne Price (in English)


    Licia Albanese

    Eugenia Moldoveanu

    Teresa Zylis-Gara

    Renata Tebaldi

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Onegin In-Depth: The Characters and their voices started by Schigolch View original post

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