Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Eugene Onegin" And "Pulcinella"

For almost the last month, Joshua and I have been listening to Russian music on the odd occasion we have had some free time on our hands.

The central work in our listening has been Tchaikovsky’s opera, “Eugene Onegin”, which we shall hear at the Metropolitan Opera this coming weekend. We have been listening to “Eugene Onegin” so that Josh may become acquainted with the score prior to this weekend’s Metropolitan Opera performance.

To provide relief from “Eugene Onegin”, we have also been listening to a disc of music by Stravinsky. Josh does not like the music of Stravinsky, but he agreed to devote some time to Stravinsky if I chose a disc with “accessible” music. I chose a disc that contained the complete ballet, “Pulcinella”. By the third listen, Josh loved “Pulcinella”.

The version of “Eugene Onegin” we have been enjoying is the Georg Solti recording on Decca. The cast members on the recording are Teresa Kubiak, Julia Hamari, Anna Reynolds, Stuart Burrows, Michel Senechal, Bernd Weikl and Nicolai Ghiaurov. The chorus is The John Alldis Choir and the orchestra is The Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“Eugene Onegin” is a work that has been very unlucky on disc. Of modern recordings, the Solti is the only one worth hearing. Other modern sets are put out of court on account of their conductors.

Based solely upon evidence from his recordings, Solti was not a great Tchaikovsky conductor. Solti’s “Eugene Onegin”, however, is the exception to the rule. Solti’s is the best-conducted “Eugene Onegin” on disc, hands down, with no serious rival.

Solti knew exactly what he wanted to do in this score, and he knew exactly how to obtain the results he wanted. His is a performance of tremendous focus, concentration, energy, commitment and sweep. It has verve to burn.

Solti was that rare conductor who knew how to create and calibrate a performance in the recording studio, bringing the precisely-correct emotional temperature to each individual number of a score. Opera recordings are almost always made out of sequence, and sessions are often stretched over weeks, even months. Many conductors cannot offer their best work under such circumstances.

Such practices were not a handicap for Solti. Early in his career, Solti somehow learned how to work, and how to give his best, in the recording studio. The result: some of the finest recordings, opera and otherwise, in the history of the gramophone.

Solti’s “Eugene Onegin” is never aimless. It never meanders. Solti’s is very expressive music-making, but he never lathers emotion onto the score like a chef using a pastry knife.

Three years before this recording was made, Solti conducted a series of what were considered to be exceptional, even historic, “Eugene Onegin” performances at The Royal Opera House. Solti’s experience conducting the work in the theater in 1971 may be responsible for much of the success of this 1974 recording, because this is a very theatrical “Eugene Onegin” from a conducting point of view.

I do not believe Solti’s work is perfect here. The orchestra’s work is diamond-bright at all times to the point of brittleness, which is probably exacerbated by the clarity and brightness of the sound engineering. At times, Solti’s approach becomes tiring (as does the sound). I can imagine the score receiving gentler, more nuanced, treatment.

Everything about the performance holds together, however, which must be a great accomplishment, since so many other conductors fall apart in this score (James Levine and Semyon Bychkov conspicuously so). Someone else besides me must like this particular recording, because it has remained in the active catalog, continuously, at full price, for three-and-a-half decades.

The principal singers certainly cannot account for the set’s longevity and acclaim.

Teresa Kubiak offers a serviceable Tatiana, nothing more. Her performance is a cool one, her Tatiana more polite than interesting. Kubiak sounds too old for the part, and she lacks a distinctive and alluring timbre. More damaging still, Kubiak fails to break the listener’s heart in the letter scene—and yet the letter scene is nonetheless riveting, but only because of what Solti does with the orchestra—and she remains stubbornly unmoving in her farewell scene with Onegin.

Bernd Weikl’s Onegin is no better. His voice is very woolly in this recording, and not particularly pleasing to my ears, and he displays no dramatic involvement. The only special quality Weikl brings to Onegin is a great realization of his character’s stiffness, which Weikl embodies to a “T”, whether by design or not.

The Lensky of Stuart Burrows is much better characterized than the Tatiana of Kubiak or the Onegin of Weikl. Burrows shapes his music very intelligently, and he acts with his voice, both of which help to bring his character to life. The quality of the voice itself is the problem—Burrows has an inherently unattractive, grainy voice, a voice with absolutely no beauty of tone, color or luster.

I wish I knew the story behind the casting of Kubiak, Weikl and Burrows for this particular recording, because I am confident there must be a story behind the decision to cast these three singers in the principal roles. I cannot believe for a moment that any of the principal singers were Solti’s or Decca’s first choices for their roles.

When Covent Garden mounted its new “Eugene Onegin” in 1971, the principals were Ileana Cotrubas, Victor Braun and Robert Tear. The production was by Peter Hall, and the opera was given in English translation, a practice that—unaccountably—continued at Covent Garden for at least the first two revivals of the production. (My parents attended a “Eugene Onegin” performance at Covent Garden in 1976, the second revival of the Hall production, and in 1976 the opera was still being presented in English. Kiri Te Kanawa was the Tatiana that night, “glamorous but uncomfortable” according to my parents.)

Few would want to hear Braun and Tear in a “Eugene Onegin” recording, but Cotrubas was a sensation at Covent Garden as Tatiana, singing what many still contend to have been the definitive portrayal of Tatiana. Many knowledgeable persons consider Tatiana to have been Cotrubas’s single greatest role. Cotrubas’s voice was at its peak at the time of this recording, and she was then in demand at all the major international houses. Why, then, was Cotrubas not engaged for the Decca recording?

I wish I knew the answer to that question, because Cotrubas might have raised this recording to an altogether higher level. Further, it is a pity her Tatiana was never captured for posterity.

Ironically, it is the secondary cast members in this “Eugene Onegin” recording that carry the drama. They provide, without exception, the finest representations of their roles on disc.

Julia Hamari’s Olga is simply to die for—she has a young, fresh voice, of beautiful and distinctive timbre, and she positively inhabits her role as Tatiana’s extrovert, even flirtatious, sister. She steals every scene in which she takes part. Anna Reynolds sings a full-dimensional Madame Larina: authoritative and motherly, yet clueless and daffy in equal measure. Nicolai Ghiaurov has the perfect voice and gravitas for Prince Gremin. Michel Senechal’s brief star turn as Monsieur Triquet extended his opera career by another two decades—he became in demand to sing the role all over the world once this recording was issued. The success of the secondary roles in this recording goes a long way in making up for the lackluster work of the principals.

One thing I have always found intriguing about this particular recording is that, of all studio recordings of “Eugene Onegin”, this is the only one in which the choral scenes come off. And yet the Chorus Of The Royal Opera House was not used for this recording, presumably because the Chorus Of The Royal Opera House had been accustomed to performing “Eugene Onegin” only in English at the time this recording was made. Instead, a concert choir was engaged.

The John Alldis Choir does splendid work. The choral work is so strong—and so theatrical—that the listener would be forgiven for believing this chorus to have been singing the opera in Russian for years on end in the theater.

Josh loved “Eugene Onegin”, as I knew he would. It seems that everyone loves “Eugene Onegin”, whether they be persons who normally gravitate toward German opera or persons who generally favor Italian opera or, indeed, whether they be music-lovers who tend to avoid opera altogether. It is a timeless, universal work, of the most extravagant beauty, one of the most touching operas in the repertory.

It is odd that this opera took so long to catch on in the West.

The Metropolitan Opera first mounted “Eugene Onegin” in 1920—in Italian translation, of all things. The work did not prove to be popular with New York audiences. Seven New York performances, along with one Philadelphia performance, were offered in the 1919-1920 and 1920-1921 seasons, after which the work was dropped from the Met’s repertory. (Oddly, Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” reached the Met’s stage before “Eugene Onegin”—“Pique Dame” was given its first Met production in 1910, a full decade before “Eugene Onegin”.)

The Met did not mount “Eugene Onegin” again until 1957, when it unveiled a new Peter Brook production, using an English translation (and four newly-composed musical interludes, suggested by the conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and based upon musical themes of Tchaikovsky). The Brook production received seven New York performances in the 1957-1958 season (and the work was included in the company’s 1958 Spring Tour) and another five New York performances in the 1958-1959 season, after which it was shelved until 1964, when another eight New York performances were scheduled, again in English translation.

The next revival of the Brook production did not occur until thirteen years later, when the Met—at last—performed “Eugene Onegin” in Russian. By the late 1970’s, the work was finally beginning to acquire an appreciative audience at the Met—probably the result of New York performances of “Eugene Onegin” by the Bolshoi on tour—and “Eugene Onegin” was offered in three consecutive seasons for the first time in Met history: 1977-1978 (seven performances); 1978-1979 (seven performances); and 1979-1980 (twelve performances in New York and numerous additional performances on tour). It was during this three-season period that “Eugene Onegin” at last became a staple of the Met repertory, never since long absent from the schedule.

By the mid-1980’s, “Eugene Onegin” was becoming popular not only in New York but all over the United States. The opera is now presented everywhere, in cities large and small, and most often in Russian. The work has become a cornerstone of the American repertory.

My family has a long, multi-generational history with the old Brook Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”.

My maternal grandparents attended a performance of the Brook staging in the production’s very first season, when the Metropolitan Opera presented the work during its annual tour appearance in Minneapolis. Since there was only one Minneapolis performance of “Onegin” that year, I can identify from the Met archives the date my grandparents attended that performance: May 16, 1958.

Mitropoulos—a former Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra (then known as the Minneapolis Symphony)—conducted that Minneapolis performance. My grandparents always adored Mitropoulos, dating back to his years with the local orchestra in the 1940’s, and I suspect that Mitropoulos was the draw for my grandparents. Lucine Amara sang Tatiana, George London sang Onegin and Richard Tucker sang Lensky at that performance.

My mother was not permitted to attend that “Eugene Onegin” performance in 1958, as my grandparents believed that she was not old enough to sit through an opera!

My parents first attended the Brook production on May 21, 1980, when the Metropolitan Opera presented “Eugene Onegin” for the second time in Minneapolis, twenty-two years (almost to the day) after its first presentation. My maternal grandmother was at that performance, too, as was another member of my family: ME! (Of course, I was not to be born for another six months, but nonetheless I very definitely was at that performance.)

The late Emil Tchakarov, who died very young, was the conductor for that 1980 Minneapolis “Eugene Onegin”. Kubiak sang Tatiana and Nicolai Gedda sang Lensky. Onegin was sung by a nonentity.

Five years later, on May 14, 1985, my parents attended the Brook production of “Eugene Onegin” once again, when the Brook production was toured for the third and final time to Minneapolis.

The 1985 performance apparently was atrocious. The late Thomas Fulton, who also died very young, was the unsatisfactory conductor. Tatiana was sung by a nonentity, an over-the-hill Braun sang Onegin, and a dry-voiced David Rendall sang Lensky. My parents recall booing after that performance—practically unheard-of in Minneapolis—and they say that the booing was fully deserved.

My only experience with the Brook production was in late 1992, when my parents and my brothers and I attended a performance of “Eugene Onegin” in New York between Christmas and the New Year. We attended the penultimate performance of the Brook production before it was permanently retired after 35 years of hard service. (We attended the December 28 performance; the New Year’s Eve performance three days later marked the production’s final appearance.)

The 1992 performance was not good, but it marked three generations of my family attending the same production of the same opera over a 34-year period. James Levine was the conductor in 1992. A nonentity sang Tatiana. Dwayne Croft sang Onegin. The late Jerry Hadley, who also died young, sang Lensky. More than anything, I recall how old the sets looked that night.

The current Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin” was unveiled in 1997. It is a minimalist Robert Carsen production, played on a mostly bare stage.

My parents and I attended a performance of the Carsen production seven years ago this very month. The conductor in 2002 was Vladimir Jurowski. A nonentity sang Tatiana. Thomas Hampson sang Onegin, gloriously. Marcello Giordano sang Lensky. Other than the stupendous Hampson, the rest of the 2002 musical presentation was entirely unremarkable.

For this weekend’s performance, Hampson will once again sing Onegin. Karita Mattila is scheduled to portray Tatiana, and Piotr Beczala is down for Lensky. Jiri Belohlavek is the scheduled conductor.

Josh and I—and my parents—are very much looking forward to Saturday’s “Eugene Onegin”. It is one of the few operas I can sit through over and over. It will probably be our last chance to catch the current Metropolitan Opera production of “Eugene Onegin”, since I understand the production will be retired early, to be replaced with a new production scheduled to open in the next couple of seasons.

For the last several years, my parents have generally traveled to New York for the February holiday weekend, and this was because my older brother and his family used to live in New York. Now that my brother and his family are living in Minneapolis, I had assumed that such February visits to New York by my parents were over.

However, not long after Christmas, my parents asked Josh and me whether we wanted to join them for the February holiday weekend in New York, making it clear to us that they had no interest in traveling to New York that weekend unless we joined them.

Josh and I talked about it, and we decided that a holiday weekend in New York might be fun, especially if the holiday weekend featured a New York City Ballet program my mother might enjoy and something on the schedule at the Met we all might enjoy.

There was one fly in the ointment: Josh and I do not have a full holiday weekend at our disposal, and this is because Josh has classes on Presidents’ Day. As a result, our holiday weekend, lengthwise, will be a regular weekend, and so it will be for my parents as well. Josh and I will drive down to New York the middle of tomorrow afternoon, and drive back to Boston early Sunday evening. My parents are scheduled to arrive at Newark late tomorrow afternoon, and scheduled to fly out again early Sunday evening.

We have only three items on our New York agenda, all at Lincoln Center: “Eugene Onegin” at the Metropolitan Opera; a New York City Ballet performance at The New York State Theater; and “South Pacific” at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The “Pulcinella” recording Josh and I have been enjoying is the Pierre Boulez recording on the Erato label. The singers are Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Simon Estes, and the orchestra is Ensemble InterContemporain. The coupling is “Song Of The Nightingale”, again conducted by Boulez, with Orchestre National De France.

“Pulcinella” is one of Stravinsky’s most charming, even enchanting, works. Sergei Diaghilev himself was the inspiration behind this 1920 commedia dell’arte ballet, and he convinced Stravinsky to create his score based upon old music manuscripts of short-lived Italian Baroque composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (six decades later, the attribution of the manuscripts to Pergolesi was found to be spurious).

Stravinsky wrote his ballet score for soprano, tenor, bass-baritone and chamber orchestra (33 players are called for). “Pulcinella” very well may be Stravinsky’s single wittiest work. The composer took what he liked from the old manuscripts, taking a few bars here and a few bars there from dozens of ancient sources, then rearranging the selected snippets to his personal satisfaction by cutting, pasting, overlapping, fracturing and rewriting mercilessly, after which he filtered everything through his own unique harmonic and rhythmic genius. The end result is one of the most captivating ballet scores ever written.

The Boulez recording is very fine. The vocalists are excellent, among the best on record. The playing and conducting are perfectly adequate, although the Claudio Abbado recording on Deutsche Grammophon offers a superior group of instrumentalists as well as a performance of greater brilliance, elegance and refinement.

The disc coupling is not quite as good. The playing of Orchestre National De France in "Song Of The Nightingale" is capable and Boulez concentrates on obtaining a clean presentation of the notes, but no one would buy this particular disc for any reason other than the “Pulcinella” performance. There are several better performances of “Song Of The Nightingale” on disc, starting with the old Fritz Reiner.


  1. I see that you will also be experiencing a Russian Valentine's Day. Any chance you and Josh could swap places with us?


  2. You're not going to believe this, but my first performance at the Met was that same old Onegin production. It was February or March 1985. Neeme Jarvi conducted. Some singer named Kay Griffel sung the lead. I never heard of her before and I've never heard of her since. She wasn't bad, by the way.

    The designer for that production was Rolf Gerard. Everyone always told me how good the designs were.

    Maybe I was expecting too much, but I was disappointed in the designs. They looked cheap.

    I was also surprised there was no dancing in the polonnaise that begins Act III. People merely walked across the stage, against a backdrop of some massive gray columns.

    It was a big disappointment.

  3. This Met data base is great.

    OK, I heard Kay Griffel, Leo Nucci and Mischa Raitzin, with Jarvi in the pit. That was February 1985.

    Your parents heard Natalia Rom, Victor Braun and David Rendall, with Thomas Fulton in the pit. That was May 1985.

    I got the better of the deal. Your parents got the short end of the stick.

    Who are these people? Kay Griffel, Natalia Rom, Mischa Raitzin--never heard of any of them.

    I had never heard of Victor Braun, either, until I read your post. He made his Met debut in Onegin the previous year. Was he supposed to be good?

    Memories about that Onegin are coming back now. I remember now that the performance seemed thrown together. I remember also that Nucci was a really ITALIAN Eugene Onegin. The whole thing sorta stunk.

  4. Sorry, Dane, but it is you, and not us, who has the Visas--and we do not know a word of Russian, and could not possibly get around.

  5. Dan, I know nothing about those singers, other than what I just found online.

    I see that Braun and Raitzin are now deceased.

    I found an interesting few paragraphs about Kay Griffel on the Opera List.

    Braun sang Wolfram for Solti on the Decca "Tannhauser" and Griffel made an Orff recording with Karajan and a Janacek recording with Kubelik.

    Rom and Raitzin were Russian emigres, not surprisingly.

    Braun was Canadian. Griffel was from Iowa.

    That's about it.

  6. The current ROH Onegin is a bit of a mess. The production was new in 2006. There’s a pond in the first act, people in animal costumes at the birthday party in the second act, and an ice rink with ice skaters in the third. The third act is set outdoors, not in a ballroom. It is all rather silly.

    We went to a performance about a year ago. Two of the performers were the same as you will see tomorrow: Beczala and Belohlavek. Beczala was good. Belohlavek was asleep at the podium and got terrible results from the orchestra. It was a tedious evening. We will never return for that production.

  7. The Met used to come to Cleveland, too. Shirley and I saw one of those touring Onegins. I don't remember if it was 1980 or 1985. My recollection is that the performance was poor. The production definitely had seen better days.

  8. I can see you know a great deal about music at the age of 28!!!!
    How on God's earth can you say that Stuart Burrows does not have one of the most golden toned voices of the century is beyond me. For your information when he sang this at Covent Garden the stage hands, other singers, makeup artis etc would congregate on the side of the stage to listen to his aria, such was the beauty of his singing, and what a show stopper. He would leave after the aria and the audience were left stomping the floor for him to take his bow, he was on a train home by then. How do I know this? I was there and had a friend who worked at the house. Burrows was the voice to hear and in the words of Sir Colin Davies and the late Solti "we are still waiting for another Stuart Burrows to come along".Have another listen my friend and this time make sure your CD player isn't of the grainy variety. You might find you are in for a treat.