Eugene Onegin is notably superior to Tchaikovsky's other half dozen odd operas. Why? Probably because it was nearer to his private life than the others which deal with gambling (Pique Dame), Mazeppa - Cossack chetman, The Maid of Orleans, The Sorceress - medieval blind princess, Oprichnik - crude melodrama, Undine, jilted water-nymph, Voyevoda, medieval woman stealer. All of these operas contain some, but not enough, fine music but the plots were not anywhere near to Tchaikovsky's life or person. But Onegin was: he himself had received a letter from a girl throwing herself at the feet of someone she barely knew. As we know, Onegin coldly rebuffed Tatiana. Tchiakovsky was touched by the situation and set to work immediately on his famous letter scene. And, although he wrote Onegin some fine music,, the composer hated Onegin so that when he received in real life a similar letter, he determined that he would not behave heartlessly. So Tchaikovsky married the letter writer - with predictably disastrous results; homosexual marries the letter-writer (at a time of course when he needed to fend off accusations of 'un-natural practices')
On May 21 Onegin was the second opera to be performed in the current season at Glyndebourne - mairaculously in halcyon weather. Six operas form the repertoire Albert Herring, Carmen, Hansel and Gretel, a new opera by Peter Eötvös called Love and Other Demons and the season began with Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, a performance whose music side under Emmanuel Haim was lauded by the critics but whose production was loudly dislauded.
Onegin has no hero onstage but here in Sussex it had one, conducting in the pit. Vladimir Jurowski, the young Moscow-born music director at Glyndebourne, was the star of the evening. It was a curious performance in as much as none of the singers was able to project their characters enough and yet the evening was vastly enjoyable because of the orchestra's playing and Graham Vick's production.
I have heard the Letter Scene in concert hundreds of times and seen it on stage three score or more times, but I have never been so moved by it since I first heard it, as on this occasion. The young Latvian soprano Maija Kovaloeska looked good and sang nicely without completely getting to grips with either the character or her music. But the London Philharmonic under Jurowksi really touched the spot. The soft playing of the first horn was exceptionally beautiful. We had the Slovakian baritone Ales Jenis as the cad Onegin, an Italian tenor, Massimo Giordano as the fated poet Lensky and a Russian bass, Mikhail Schelomianski as Tatiana's second choice, the Prince Gremin: all adequate, none entirely satisfactory. Chorus excellent.
The production, on the other hand, was not only satisfactory but superb. Graham Vick's productions these days are usually rather wilful and over the top, trying too hard, not content to leave the music speak for itself. But this Onegin was first seen here in 1994. Sometimes the scene is spare (just two chairs for the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana) but other scenes are truly memorable: the scene of the duel was hauntingly lit and set, and , best of all, the dance at the Laras in act one, one of the best operatic scenes I have encountered, a real country hop with chidren larking about and all.
The evening began coldly, but soon warmed up, thanks to Jurowski's passionate yet elegant, life-enhancing realisation of Tchaikovsky's evergreen masterpiece. Mrs Tchaikovsky may have been repellent in the composer's eyes, but she inspired one of the greatest and most lovable of operas.