Skip to main content

Best of the Best: Eugene Onegin

We asked our critics for the greatest recordings of its greatest excerpts.

By Henry Stewart

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Eugene Onegin at the Met, 2007

© Johan Elbers

“Puskai pogibnu ya


For Tatiana’s letter aria, many of our critics like Galina Vishnevskaya. “Tatiana truly lives in every soulful phrase heard from the young, luminous-voiced” soprano, writes Roger Pines. She “shapes the aria with infinite care,” adds Louise T. Guinther, “building the scene in gradually heightening waves that flow and ebb from slow, dreamy, gossamer rumination to almost hysterical intensity and back.” David J. Baker prefers Asmik Grigorian, in concert (and on YouTube!). Displaying “mercurial, almost adolescent moods and fears,” she delivers “an urgent portrayal of impetuous passion that also manages to sound smart and endearing.”

Kogda bi zhizn


Six years after his death, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky still owns Onegin and the character’s Act I aria, “for radiance of tone combined with youthful ardor,” writes Clive Paget. “He seems the last word in charisma, even glamour, with the force to unsettle any young woman,” adds Baker. “The range of moods embraces confidence, bravado, worldliness, impatience, aloofness, cynicism and even some iron—a withering ‘speech’ sounding here as it must have resonated in Tatiana’s mind for years after. I also sense him setting himself up for the crushing reversal in the blow she’ll deal him at the opera’s end.” (If you know Hvorostovsky, love Hvorostovsky, but need something new—how about Peter Mattei?)

“Kuda, kuda vï udalilis


Many of our critics like Lenski’s aria in a language other than Russian. It “requires the most beautiful of voices, so who better than Fritz Wunderlich?” writes Paget. (“Yes,” he adds, “it’s in German, but.…”) William R. Braun prefers “Jussi Björling, singing in Swedish.” He, “the most youthful-sounding of Lenskis, shows us that the tragedy is not to lose your life but to lose your friend.” If you’ve just got to go Russian, you can’t go wrong with Sergei Lemeshev, whose “heartrending performance is voiced with exquisite tonal clarity and matchlessly expressive legato,” writes Pines. Hear, hear. For something more modern, Baker recommends Benjamin Bernheim. “More lyrical, precise and bright-voiced than most tenors heard in the role, he strikes me as the perfect foil for the arrogant Onegin.”

“Lyubvi vse vozrastï pokornï


Gremin’s aria draws some consensus around Nicolai Ghiaurov. He’s “mature, gruff but passionate,” writes Baker. “He portrays not just deep dedication but also a macho, evergreen quality that suggests he’s not merely paternal toward a young wife. His ardent embrace of the melodic line is mesmerizing.” He “shapes Gremin’s declaration of love so naturally and conversationally that one hardly realizes one is hearing an aria,” adds Guinther. “His sincerity and gratitude are deeply touching.” She also throws Sergei Koptchak into the mix for his “extraordinary warmth and lyricism.”

“Onegin! Ya togda molozhe


No two critics chose the same performance of the final duet. William R. Braun likes the one on the DVD of Stefan Herheim’s production in Amsterdam. “Bo Skovhus gives the most unbounded, fearless performance I’ve ever seen from a male singer,” he writes. “Krassimira Stoyanova’s implacable Tatiana is having none of it; when she sings, ‘I’m crying,’ she sings it sarcastically.” Guinther prefers a televised performance from Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1984. “Wolfgang Brendel pours on white-hot passion and vocal velvet in phrases of arching fervor,” she writes, “and Mirella Freni responds with unflagging beauty of tone, dramatic specificity and unshakable dignity.”