Thursday, June 28, 2012

From Russia with Dangerous Love

courtesy Wikipedia

Given its overwhelming popularity, direct emotional power and heart breaking lyricism it's hard to believe that Peter Tchaikovsky approached the Pushkin text with reservations. His concern, which I think gives it a touch of modernity, is its episodic nature. I will admit a personal prejudice - it was the first opera I ever saw at the Met, back "When Moses wore short pants" from the Crows Nest or the Nose Bleed section. None of that mattered I have loved Eugene Onegin from that first hearing to this day. I have also been interested with the way the story renews itself. It has been filmed in the last decade or so with Ralph Finnes and was used as a symbolic touchstone in the filming of Patricia Highsmith's powerful The Talented Mr. Ripley. It moves Tom Ripley to see how youthful emotions of love, covetousness and jealousy lead to murder.

Eugene Onegin tears away the facade of both innocence and experience. These "young people" are capable of not only powerful feeling, but incredible acts of destruction. The early effusions of Tatyana and Onegin are a storm of real desire and impulsiveness that once unleashed are impossible to control. Later, when they meet again, they are the captive of the reverse of wild and free expression. They have learned decorum, renunciation and conformity. In both instances truth is sacrificed to form, in Act One by Onegin and in Act Two by Tatyana.

The plot is on the surface the simplest thing in the world. Aloof and urbane, Onegin descends on the countryside. Local girls are wowed and provincial egos and hearts are threatened. Unfortunately for everyone no one is as "civilized" as they seem. Tatyana opens her heart and has it crushed by Onegin's brutal rejection. Worse his cruelty is a pose. He will kill his friend Lensky in a duel over something that could easily have been avoided. They are savage children on the rampage. Still, underneath all the self - deception and blind subjectivity is love and authenticity trying to break out, but they fail utterly and the result as a character ruefully remarks in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility as another character blunders from one impetus choice to another, she warns "You must control yourself or none of us shall have happy lives".  This true, beating heart of the opera Tchaikovsky expresses in ravishing lyricism; first the Letter Scene:

                                             Uvi ! ne silakh ya vladyet svoyei dushoi !

                                  Alas, I have not the strength to subue my heart !

                                                        I will confess all! Courage! 

And then Lenski horrifyingly walks to his death as when neither, he or Onegin will back down from social embarrassment:

                                                      Kuda, Kuda kuda vi udalilis,

                                                  Where oh where have you gone,

                                                        golden days of my youth ?

The operas three great acts give us innocent confession, then social manipulation and finally after a senseless murder by way of a duel. A lifetime of searching and regret subdued finally by a retreat into stoicism, after the terrible trauma of these events. In the third act Tatyana confesses that she in fact does "still love Onegin" but she will not leave with him. She speaks of responsibility, but there is a fatal, sadness and fear in this renunciation. Tchaikovsky illustrates in music of this arc of emotional transformation as he communicates levels of enthusiasm to confusion, then rejection, to violence and finally regret and the search for meaning and contrition are one of the great achievements of Romantic Music. This feeling stuff he tells his audience is serious business. The real life Pushkin would himself perish at the height of his powers in just such a duel, age 37, in 1837. 

courtesy Wikipedia

Tune in this Saturday at noon for Tchaikovsky's masterful adaptation of Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI  

by Ron Moore

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