Music and Vision homepage


Second Sight - Music with Wilfrid Mellers

7. Private passion and public hauteur
Reporting on Opera North's current production
of 'Eugene Onegin'


In the late 1870s -- when Tchaikovsky embarked on what was to become his most frequently performed, deeply respected, and warmly loved opera -- he devised, with the help of his brother Modeste and of Konstantin Shilovsky, a libretto based on a verse novel of one of the supreme Russian writers, Alexander Pushkin. It now seems that this libretto was largely of the composer's own expert invention, probably triggered by the story's setting in a world of small-town feudal landowners such as he recalled from his own childhood with his beloved sisters and his still more avidly loved mother. Mother had given a further twist to the screw by dying when her son was fourteen; grown up, he seems to have found in Pushkin's heroine qualities similar to his own near-neurotic hypersensitivity and his desperate need to be loved, the more devastatingly experienced because of his guilt-inducing homoeroticism.

However this may be, Pushkin's Tatyana is tormented by a passion for the handsomely aristocratic Eugene Onegin so violent as to be on the verge of lunacy. Onegin is a friend of the young poet Lensky, who is betrothed to Tatyana's sister Olga; and the first music Tchaikovsky composed for his opera was the famous letter-scene in which, in the silence of the night, she pens a wild avowal of love to the lofty nobleman. The sinuous arioso and lucently textured orchestral music of this letter-scene mirror Tchaikovsky's, as well as Tatyana's, inner turbulence, imbuing the girl with the intimate lyricism he admired in Massenet, tempered by the pristine clarity of Bizet.

These French affiliations acquired, however, enhanced force in being transferred to old, White Russia, wherein a primitive peasantry coexisted with Paris-affiliated sophisticates -- opposite poles that made for an uneasy union. In the letter-scene itself Tchaikovsky's recurrent harmonization of Tatyana's oppressively declining scale with the 'Neapolitan' chord of the flattened sixth renders a fairly modern cliché as haunting as a folk lament, so that we accept the tale as at once historical, mythological, and contemporary. This must be why Tchaikovsky's operatic parable still pulls so paradoxically powerful, if also curiously refined, a punch; his precarious equilibrium between his own nervous sensibility and instability and the apparent eternity of folk lament is still, perhaps to an exacerbated degree, ours.

Continue >>

Copyright © 12 May 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




 << Music & Vision home      Recent reviews       Halifax >>