23 November 2015 at 12.30pm | 2 Comments
Conductor Semyon Bychkov is celebrated around the world for his interpretations of a huge range of operatic and orchestral repertory. But it all started with Tchaikovsky’s glorious Eugene Onegin, ‘the first opera I ever conducted – an unbelievable privilege and experience’. His long history with the piece has given him a unique insight into Tchaikovsky’s nuanced portraits of each of his main characters – particularly the central couple, Onegin and Tatyana.
Tchaikovsky’s opera, adapted from Pushkin’s iconic verse novel, is enduringly popular with audiences the world over. As Bychkov explains, ‘it’s the story that touches everyone, regardless of age or life station – in a way, like Bohème does. It’s about two young people. It is a tender story, but there’s a lot of bitterness in it; there is a lot of poetry in it’. And, of course, ‘the music is so magnificent’.
He describes how, unusually for a title role, Onegin ‘did not receive the kind of musical material which allows an artist to genuinely create a very complex character. It’s a really difficult role to do’. On the other hand, ‘the opera is flooded with Tatyana’s music’. Bychkov argues that this suggests Tchaikovsky’s sympathies were not with the callous title character but with his heroine, the girl who honestly declares her love for Onegin: ‘after all, Tchaikovsky did write that he was weeping as he composed Tatyana’s music.’
Onegin’s friend Lensky also receives much music that is exquisitely beautiful. ‘There’s a reason why Tchaikovsky composed such magnificent music for Lensky. Because he’s a pure poet – a really beautiful, completely pure young man, who really believes in friendship, in love. And he lives an illusion. Therefore, when reality hits him, it’s even more painful. He cannot deal with it.’
The end of the opera sees Onegin discover his love for Tatyana – who is now married to another. Bychkov remembers long debates as a student, when he and his friends would argue over whether Tatyana would leave her husband for Onegin. Bychkov’s opinion hasn’t changed: ‘This woman has an inner core which is unbelievably strong. Her sense of values with which she grew up is so deeply ingrained that it would be inconceivable for her to leave her husband, even for someone that she once loved. It couldn’t be just a marriage of convenience – not for someone like her.’
Bychkov’s careful, penetrating contemplation of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin’s characters drives his understanding of the opera. It’s an approach that has made him one of the greatest interpreters of the work today.
Watch more films like this on the Royal Opera House YouTube channel:
Eugene Onegin runs 19 December 2015–7 January 2016. Tickets are still available.