EUGENE ONEGIN AT THE MET

Although Eugene Onegin is Tchaikovsky’s most frequently performed opera at the Metropolitan, it was slow to get a foothold in the repertory. Perhaps the greatest obstacle it presented was one of language. Early in the twentieth century, Russian opera was presented in translation at the Met, usually Italian or French. By mid-century, English translations became the norm for Russian operas. In fact, the Met did not perform a complete opera in Russian until the early 1970’s when Queen of Spades (1972) and Boris Godunov (1974) were finally given in the original language. The only exception to this tradition was Feodor Chaliapin, who sang Boris in Russian in the 1920’s, while the rest of the cast performed in Italian.

Eugene Onegin’s 1921 Met premiere was in Italian with a cast of an opera lover’s dreams – Claudia Muzio, Giovanni Martinelli, and Giuseppe De Luca. Despite the stars, the opera was not a success. After only two seasons, Onegin disappeared until a new production brought it back in 1957, sung in English, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting, and Lucine Amara, George London, and Richard Tucker in leading roles. (Original plans had Renata Tebaldi as Tatiana, but she did not want to sing it in English; clearly issues of language continued to be problematic.) Subsequent revivals continued in English until the 1977-78 season, when James Levine, who had recently been appointed music director, felt the time was right to give the opera in its original Russian.

The first Met radio broadcast of Eugene Onegin in the original Russian was conducted by Levine on February 18, 1978. The New York Post wrote that Levine "infused it with dramatic fire" and the opera was "transformed into vivid musical-theater." Teresa Zylis-Gara, the Tatiana, "sang with great beauty and finesse" and "kept her listeners spellbound." In the title role Sherrill Milnes’ "gorgeous voice and handsome physique were put to subtle use to express Onegin’s worldly sophistication." Nicolai Gedda had sung his first Met Lensky twenty years earlier, and still commanded everything necessary for the role, not least of which was his complete mastery of Russian. Gedda sang "in beautiful style, with color and nuance" receiving the performance’s biggest ovation for his Act II aria. Paul Plishka sang Prince Gremin, Isola Jones was Olga, and James Atherton, Monsieur Triquet.

– Peter Clark