Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" has been around for more than a century and has had several fine performances in Washington, but most of its national audience will be seeing it for the first time when it makes its American television debut tonight (8 p.m., Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV; simulcast on WETA-FM). To most of these first-time viewers, "Onegin" should come as a revelation and a delight. It is one of the supreme masterpieces of Romantic opera, and this fine production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago does it substantial justice.
Except for "Boris Godunov," Russian opera has never found a large audience in the United States, where most opera-lovers prefer librettos in Italian, French or German. But "Eugene Onegin" has begun to attract attention, with several worthy American productions in recent years. On Nov. 2, the Washington Opera will present it, and Washingtonians may consider this telecast a sort of preview, at least for the sets and costumes that will be used here.
With the (useful, if not always elegant) subtitles supplied in this telecast, the language barrier that has stood between Russian opera and American audiences is largely dissolved. "Eugene Onegin" emerges not only as superbly Tchaikovskian music but as a probing, heartfelt study of the Romantic personality by a composer who embodied Romanticism.
The characters are pure stereotypes: Onegin, the Byronic cynic, already jaded in his twenties and facing a future that offers him nothing but remorse and boredom; Lensky, the sensitive, impetuous young poet -- hopelessly in love and doomed to an early death; Tatiana, the virginal young woman who lives in rustic solitude and finds life only in books, until she discovers love at first sight and throws herself into it with reckless abandon. Only the most inspired treatment could save such a cast of characters from total banality. But they are brought to vivid, three-dimensional life in Tchaikovsky's brilliant score.
The plot has everything: passion throughout, enormous doses of existential despair, deep pathos in the second act and intense irony in the final scene. The big arias (notably Tatiana's long "letter" monologue, Lensky's Act 2 aria and the great bass aria given to the otherwise insignificant role of Prince Gremin) have become standard recital repertoire even in places where the full opera is never seen, and they are only the highlights of a score that includes some of the greatest dance numbers Tchaikovsky ever wrote, some marvelous choruses in Russian folk style and some superbly styled little hors d'oeuvres such as Triquet's song (a lovely 18th-century pastiche) in the Act 2 party scene.
The performance is generally excellent. Wolfgang Brendel is outstanding in the difficult title role, and secondary parts are well filled by Sandra Walker, Jean Kraft and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Conductor Bruno Bartoletti takes rather too brisk a pace in the poignant duet just before the duel, and tenor Peter Dvorsky, who sings with fine tone and excellent style, could have wrung more pathos from Lensky's big aria. Mirella Freni, as Tatiana, is vocally and stylistically secure, though this is the first time she has sung Tatiana -- or, for that matter, any role in Russian. But her international career has been in high gear for a quarter century, and it takes a rather strenuous suspension of disbelief to accept her theatrically as the virginal, idealistic 17-year-old of Acts 1 and 2.
In spite of such minor problems, however, this is a performance well worth seeing, of an opera that is well worth knowing.