TCHAIKOVSKY'S "Eugene Onegin" suffers from a language problem, which should be largely eliminated when it opens Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House with English surtitles. Its libretto is in Russian, adapted from the witty, mellifluous text of Alexander Pushkin, the Russian answer to Shakespeare.
Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," a verse novel written in elaborately rhymed stanzas, is one of the great works of world literature -- sentimental and ironic almost in the same breath and devilishly clever throughout. But, of course, much of this is lost on non-Russians.
Much of it was also lost on Tchaikovsky, who edited out the irony and cleverness and was left with intense romanticism: unrequited love on all sides; pubescent yearning in collision with world-weary cynicism; glittering dance music in two ballroom scenes and earthy peasant choruses in the background; one of history's greatest arias for soprano on the tentative, timid first stirring of teenage love; and a magnificent aria for bass on the joys of married love.
There is a duel in which a man kills his best friend and a final scene that ends in despair as only Tchaikovsky can show it. If the libretto were in Italian, it would be one of the three or four most popular operas in the world.
"Eugene Onegin" can also be seen on a videotape (Corinth Films, VHS or Beta) of a 1958 Russian movie version, somewhat cut but preserving the opera's essential flavor. The film has Bolshoi Opera singers' voices on the sound track and actors and actresses lip-synching (on the whole, quite effectively) on the screen. Galina Vishnevskaya sings the lead role of Tatiana incomparably, and the visuals have an impact beyond what is possible on any opera stage.
EUGENE ONEGIN -- In Russian with English surtitles at Kennedy Center Opera House, Saturday and November 8, 13 and 19 at 8; November 11 at 7; November 17 at 2. Videotape (VHS or Beta) for sale by Corinth Films, 410 East 62nd St., New York, NY 10021, or for rent from the Dupont Circle branch of Olsson's Books and Records.