Tuesday, October 08, 2013

How (and Why) Tchaikovsky is Different.

We missed the Met opener HD of Eugene Onegin last Saturday--just too much going on and truth be told, it's not a favorite, although it certainly is a worthy piece of business.  We saw a marvelous performance in St. Petersburg a few years ago, just full of seemingly non-exportable Russian-ness, which might have capped out motivation to see another.

Still, we may get to the encore tomorrow night, if for no other reason than to test it against this provocative offering from one of the most remarkable opera books I ever read:
[By the late 19th Century] romantic emotion had itself become a sickness.  This is the judgment of Tchaikovsky in his two operas based on Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1879) and Queen of Spades (1890)... .   Pushkin's Onegin [is a figure] from the first age of romanticism.  ... Onegin is too worldly to [kill himself] and, proudly, miserably guards his loneliness in the middle of an incessant social whirl.  Now, at the end of the nineteenth century, these poetic solitaries are redefined by opera as neurotics.

Tchaikovsky's operas are terrified of a dangerous desire which in the composer's case (and in that of his brother Modest, the librettist for The Queen of Spades) was homosexual.  The more violently the musical emotion pours out--in Tatyana's impulsive love letter to Onegin, or the obsessive vows of Herman in the later work--the more prudently or vindictively society in the drama represses it.  ... Tatyana is aloofly spurned by Onegin, and in turn regretfully spurns him; they must both learn to live without desire.  It is as if Tristan and Isolde had agreed not to love each other in deference to Marke. The unoperatic conclusion is dictated by Tchaikovsky's dread of feelings which can be expressed in music but not in action.
At first Onegin is frigidly proof against emotion.  He mocks the susceptibilities of his friend Lensky, and Olga teases her sister Tatyana for wandering off into literary and musical fantasies.  A superficial life is best. The long scene in which Tatyana writes her reckless letter telescopes a whole night from bedtime to dawn, and thus listens in on her unconscious mind.  She ought to be asleep and harmlessly dreaming, rather than entrusting her fantasy to print.  Her aria ends in a swelling musical triumph; another operatic heroine could look forward to having her wish come promptly true. Tatyana, instead, is cold-shouldered by Onegin. Later she is grateful: his cruelty has taught her the self-preservative virtue of the social forms.  Her elderly husband Gremin extols in his aria a very unoperatic kind of love.  He admires her goodness, and is cheered by her kindness; neither feels passionately about the other.  Social duty is their salvation.  The only outlet for musical impulse which society approves is dance, because it obeys strict rules and precludes intimacy--the rustic jigs of the peasants, the jolly waltz at Larina's party, the strutting polonaise which leads a conducted tour of the nobleman's house in St. Petersburg.
Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera 191-2 (1987).   But I'd quibble on one point: I think Gremin does feel passionately about Tatyana.  He can't believe his good fortune in having acquired such a young and lovely wife, and he is besotted by her.

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