LENOX - The first music Tchaikovsky composed for his operatic setting of Pushkin's novel "Eugene Onegin" was a scene in Act I in which the shy, bookish Tatiana writes a letter to the dashing Onegin, declaring her love for him. It is not only a confession of passion but an ecstatic outpouring of everything that sets her apart from her staid, conventional family.
Onegin's cold dismissal of her feelings sets the stage for the simple, wrenching tragedy that follows. He proceeds to flirt with Olga, Tatiana's sister and the fiancee of his friend, Lenski. A duel ensues, and Onegin kills Lenski. When Onegin encounters Tatiana again years later, he finally comes to understand his love for Tatiana, who is now married. Acknowledging her own feelings, she nevertheless rejects him. "Happiness was within our grasp," the pair sings at the end, and it is one of the most rueful lines in all of opera.
The virtues of Saturday's extraordinary concert performance of "Eugene Onegin" by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra began with its cast. The letter scene belonged to Renée Fleming, and it was spellbinding. Here were all the qualities audiences have come to expect from her, almost as routine: the easy, unforced beauty of her voice, its plush legato and dynamic control, and its peerless dramatic intensity. Her entire performance as Tatiana was an acute reminder of why Fleming is perhaps the most fervently admired singer of our time.
Her romantic counterpart was Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, who perfectly captured Onegin's transformation from jaded cynic to penitent. His powerful voice was a model of stalwart consistency throughout his range.
Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk brought a crimson opulence to the role of the blithe, carefree Olga. Tenor Garrett Sorenson filled in heroically for an indisposed Ramón Vargas, singing Lenski with strength, agility, and just a shade less nuance than his cohorts. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow, in the part of Tatiana's husband Prince Gremin, nearly stole the show in the final act with his fervent aria of love for her. Wendy White, Barbara Dever, and Tony Stevenson rounded out the impressive roster of singers.
Tanglewood was deeply fortunate to have Sir Andrew Davis step in for sidelined music director James Levine. Davis is an "Onegin" veteran, and his expertise was apparent throughout. He not only shaped a vibrant and coherent performance but had the TMC students sounding like a top-flight opera orchestra as well. Oboist Nicholas Stovall and horn player Timothy Riley were among the many worthy soloists. The brilliant Tanglewood Festival Chorus gave voice to the opera's various peasants, maidens, and partygoers. The ovation at the end was enthusiastic and long-lasting.