Saturday, October 27, 2012

Preview: Meet Tchaikovsky's Tatiana, who's going to be writing a famous letter

Soprano Anna Leese and baritone Mark Stone as Tatiana and Onegin in Act I of Yevgeny Onegin at London's Opera Holland Park this past July

by Ken

In early September we listened to a bunch of Tchaikovsky waltzes that included the one embedded in the opening scene of Act II of the composer's opera Yevgeny Onegin, which led to mention of the letter that young Tatiana Larina had written to a guest at her mother's country estate, Yevgeny Onegin, the worldly friend of her sister Olga's fiancé, Lenski. The writing of that letter is one of opera's great scenes, and I've been meaning to get back to the Letter Scene. This week is it.

Tonight we're going to fill in some background, and we're going to start at the very beginning, on the country estate of Madame Larina. After the Prelude, the curtain rises on Larina and her children's old nurse, Filipyevna, in the garden, listening to the Larin daughters, Tatiana and Olga, singing a suitably moody Russian duet from inside the house.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24: Prelude and Opening quartet
The garden of the Larin country estate. On the left a house with a terrace; on the right, a shady tree. It is early evening.

Madama Larina is sitting under the tree making jam on a portable stove; Filipyevna is helping her. Te doors leading from the house onto the terrace are open and the voices of the two girls, singing a duet, can be heard coming from within.

TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not heard, from beyond the grove at night,
the voice that sings of love and sings of sorrow?
When, at the morning hour, the fields lay silent,
the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
Then the music of the pipe, simple and sad,
have you not heard?
LARINA: They sing, and I too
used to sing that song in days gone by.
Do you remember? I used to sing it too.
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
[The duet continues as the older women chat and reminisce.]
TATIANA and OLGA: Have you not sighed
on hearing that sweet voice
sing of love
and of its sorrows?
Wen in the forest . . .
LARINA: How I loved Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: You were young then.
LARINA: Not that I'd read his books,
but in the old days Princess Alina,
my cousin in Moscow,
kept on to me about him.
FILIPYEVNA: Yes, I remember.
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . you saw a youth
and met the gaze
of his sunken eyes . . .
LARINA: Ah, Grandison! Ah, Richardson!
FILIPYEVNA: At that time your husband
was still courting you, but against your will;
you were dreaming of another,
one who pleased you much more
in heart and mind!
TATIANA and OLGA: . . . Did you not sigh? Did you not sigh? &c.
LARINA: Ah, Richardson!
Why, he was a fine dandy,
a gambler and an ensign in the Guards!
FILIPYEVNA: Years long gone by!
LARINA: How well I always used to dress!
FILIPYEVNA: Always in the latest fashion!
LARINA: Always in the fashion and becomingly!
FILIPYEVNA: Alwaways in the fashion and becomingly!
TATIANA and OLGA: Did you not sigh,
when you met the gaze
of his sunken eyes,
did you not sigh, did you not sigh, &c.
LARINA: But suddenly, without even asking me . . .
FILIPYEVNA: They married you off without further ado!
Then, to relieve your unhappiness . . .
LARINA: Oh, how I cried to begin with!
I nearly left my husband!
FILIPYEVNA: . . . The master came here.
Here you busied yourself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
LARINA: I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down.
FILIPYEVNA: And God be thanked!
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: 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.
LARINA: Corsets, album, Princess Pauline,
the book of sentimental verse,
I forgot them all.
to call the maid Akulka instead of Celine
and restored at last . . .
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: . . . The quilted dressing gowwn and mob cap!
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happipness.
Yes, that is how it is:
Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.
LARINA: But my husband loved me truly . . .
FILIPYEVNA: But the master loved you truly . . .
LARINA: . . . and trusted me unreservedly.
FILIPYEVNA: and trusted you unreservedly.
LARINA and FILIPYEVNA: Habit is sent us from above,
in place of happiness.

Mirella Freni (s), Tatiana; Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Olga; Rosemarie Lang (ms), Madame Larina; Ruthild Engert (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

[in English] Kiri Te Kanawa (s), Tatiana; Patricia Bardon (ms), Olga; Linda Finnie (c), Madame Larina; Elizabeth Bainbridge (ms), Filipyevna (the Nurse); Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, cond. EMI/Chandos, recorded June 29-July 6, 1992


The sisters, for all they have in common, are also very different. Most obviously, Olga is way more outgoing than the introverted Tatiana. More particularly, Olga has a fiancé, the poet Lenski; the two of them grew up on neighboring estates, and as we'll hear in a moment their parents in fact destined them for each other.

In this scene Lenski pays a visit to the Larin estate, dragging with him his world-weary (and ever so easily bored) friend Yevgeny Onegin. In a couple of moments into our excerpt we're going to hear the poet unleash on his fiancée one of music's most lyrical effusions of love-declaring. Before that, we hear some byplay between the couple, and also between the other "couple," Lenski's friend and Olga's sister.

Yevgeny Onegin, Op. 24: Act I, Scene 1, Lenski, "How happy, how happy I am" . . . "I love you, I love you, Olga"
LENSKI approaches OLGA. ONEGIN looks nonchalantly at TATIANA, who is standing with her eyes cast down; then he approaches her and engages her in conversation.

LENSKi [to OLGA]: How happy, how happy I am!
I see you once again!
OLGA: We saw each other yesterday, I think!
LENSKI: Oh yes!
But all the same, a whole long day
has gone by since we saw each other last!
An eternity!
OLGA: Eternity!
What a dreadful word!
Eternity -- just one day . . .
LENSKI: Yes, a dreadful word,
but not for my love!
[OLGA and LENSKI stroll off into the garden.]
ONEGIN [to TATIANA]: Tell me,
is it not dreadfully boring for you
here in the depths of the country,
which, though lovely, is so far away?
I don't suppose you get much amusement.
TATIANA: I read a great deal.
ONEGIN: It's true
that reading provides abundant food
for thought and feeling,
but one can't sit over a book the whole time!
TATIANA: I daydream sometimes, strolling in the garden.
ONEGIN: What do you dream about?
TATIANA: Dreams have been m companions
since my earliest days.
ONEGIN: I see you're a terrible dreamer!
I used to be the same at one time.
[They stroll away. OLGA and LENSKI return.]
LENSKI: I love you,
I love you, Olga, as only
a poet's frantic heart
can still be fated to love.
Always, everywhere, one dream alone,
one constant longing,
one insistent sadness!
As a boy I was captivated by you,
when heartache was still unknown;
I witnessed, with tender emotion,
your childish games.
Beneath the grove's protecting boughs
I shared those games.
I love you,
I love you with that love
known only to a poet's heart.
For you alone I dream,
for you alone I long.
You are my joy and suffering.
I love you,
I love you, eternally, and nothing --
not the chilling distance,
the hour of parting, nor pleasure's clamor --
can quench that heart
aflame with love's virgin fire!
OLGA: In rural tranquility
we grew up together;
and do you remember how our parents
destined us, even as children, for each other?
LENSKI: I love you!
I love you, I love you!

Neil Shicoff (t), Vladimir Lenski; Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Olga; Thomas Allen (b), Yevgeny Onegin; Mirelli Freni (s), Tatiana; Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded June 1987

Sergei Lemeshev (t), Vladimir Lenski; Bronislava Zlatogorova (ms), Olga; Panteleimon Nortsov (b), Yevgeny Onegin; Glamira Zhukovskaya (s), Tatiana; Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, Vassily Nebolsin, cond. Melodiya, recorded 1936

[in German] Fritz Wunderlich (t), Vladimir Lenski; Brifitte Fassbaender (ms), Olga; Hermann Prey (b), Yevgeny Onegin; Ingeborg Bremert (s), Tatiana; Bavarian State Orchestra, Joseph Keilberth, cond. Live performance, 1962


I think to most of us it would be clear that in this early encounter Onegin is merely being polite to Tatiana, and maybe engaging in just some habitual flirting. To Tanya, however, it's something quite different. And we're going to hear what she does about it.

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