The only reason that impresarios can convince leading tenors to take the part of Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is the second act aria ‘Kuda, Kuda’, hereafter referred to as Lensky’s aria. Even then tenors dislike playing a character who dies in the second act. This was why Richard Tucker dropped the role after 1957-58 . “My public doesn’t like to see me die in the second act,” was the explanation he offered.
The aria doesn’t make great demands on a tenor’s range, rather it requires great style and cantabile. I’ve put an English translation of the aria’s words below. I’ve made no attempt to present the words actually sung by the singers included in this compendium as they do the piece in Russian, English, German, Swedish, and Italian. I can offer no insight on the accuracy of the Russian diction by the singers who are not Russian but who sing Lensky’s Aria in the original language.
First up is Leonid Sobinov (1872-1934). He was the great Russian tenor of the late imperial and early communist eras, managing the transition without difficulty. In fact, he was made a People’s Artist of the USSR. Before the revolution he sang at La Scala, Madrid, Paris, and Covent Garden. This recording made around 1910 give a good idea how the Russians approached the song. It’s a little less muscular than some of the versions presented below. For a recording more than a century old it shows the Russian to great advantage. His voice is capable of navigation the full dynamic range that this mournful piece requires. It serves as a good example of how the aria should be sung. Sobinov Lensky’s aria
I’ve already written about Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-93). He was Stalin’s favorite tenor and often sang this aria for the music loving monster. His only rival was the singer presented next. His voice is brighter than Sobinov, but also has distinctly different timbre which result from his vocal production which at times emphasizes a throaty register. There’s a slow a dreamy quality about his interpretation. Kozlovsky Lensky’s Aria
Sergei Lemeshev (1902-77) was Kozlovsky’s only competition in Russia. Many consider his interpretation of this aria to be definitive. He was plagued by health issues including pulmonary tuberculosis for which he was treated with a therapeutic pneumothorax. Somehow he managed to keep singing with one lung. The other lung was also collapsed after the reinflation of the first one. He has a solid lyric tenor that is fully under control throughout its vocal and dynamic range. His diminuendo at the end is efforlessly delivered. Lemeshev Lensky’s aria
Jussi Björling (1911-60) sings the aria on this recording in his native Swedish. There is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said many times about the beauty and security of this unique voice. Just enjoy the singing. Björling Lensky’s aria
Richard Tucker (1913-74) sang the role in English. His English diction was flawless and only matched by that of Nicolai Gedda whom we’ll get to below, though not in English. This recording is from the 1957 broadcast of the opera from the Met. Tucker’s spinto voice is lightened to realize the lachrymose emotion of the aria. Tucker’s reading is just about perfect. His voice is focused, ringing, and without strain. Tucker Lensky’s aria
Lensky does not seem like the ideal role for Giuseppe Di Stefano’s passionate style of singing. I don’t know if he ever sang the role onstage. He sings the aria in Italian and gives an interesting interpretation, if not up to the idiomatic standards of his Slavic colleagues. I don’t know exactly when this recording was made, but it was before his premature vocal decline. Di Stefano Lensky`s aria
Nicolai Gedda (b 1925) was of Swedish and Russian heritage. He was fluent in both languages and in English, Italian, French, and German as well. This recording was made when the tenor was 28 years old and is much more restrained and subtle than the recordings of the aria he made later on. The voice is beautiful and his expression of its sentiments is brilliant. Gedda’s technique was so strong that he sang successfully well into his 70s. Between 1957 and 1983 he gave 367 performances at the Met alone. He also made more than 200 recordings. Gedda Lensky’s aria
Alas, Fritz Wunderlich (1930-66) gave no performances at the Met; he died from a fall just weeks before he was to make his New York debut. His beautiful and completely formed lyric tenor was great at everything his sang. He sings the aria in German. His limpid and emotionally apposite singing of this piece is a moving example of how much opera lost because of his premature death. Wunderlich Lensky’s Aria
Placido Domingo (b 1941) recorded this aria in 1969 when he was still in his 20s and had just come into full flower as the great singer he was. His Russian probably isn’t that good (no way for me to judge), but the voice is miraculous. This is a full throated interpretation that shows the richness of tone that characterized Domingo’s voice in its prime. His was a sound that was wondrous, especially when heard in the opera house. Domingo Lensky’s aria
Neil Shicoff (b 1949) was supposed to be the next great American tenor after Tucker; he was even born in Brooklyn and was the son of a cantor. Though he had a fine career, personal issues diminished the impact he made. As gifted as he was, he should have done more. His dark voice is emitted with security and richness. A fine interpretation. Shicoff Lensky’s aria
Ramon Vargas (b 1960) started out as a very lyric tenor but gradually, and successfully, moved to heavier roles as he aged. Lensky is a role he regularly sings. His is a sensitive reading that shows the firmness of tone that he now has. Vargas Lensky’s aria
Piotr Beczala (b 1966) also sings Lensky regularly. During the Met HD broadcast of 2013 he was not in ideal voice. In this version, he is in glorious form. His sound is golden and his phrasing sheer perfection. His picture is above the title. Beczala Lensky’s aria
Finally, here is Rolando Villazon’s (b 1973) singing of the aria. This recording was made shortly before the vocal crisis from which he yet to fully recover. The loss of his beautiful sound and exquisite phrasing is a major blow to opera. Villazon Lensky’s aria
Thirteen interpretations of this magical aria. I can’t assign pride of place. Take your pick.
Where have you gone, o golden days of my spring?
What does the day coming has in store for me?
It escapes my eyes, it is hidden!
Shall I fall to the deadly arrow, or will it pass by?
All for better, there is a pre-determined time
For life and for sleep
Blessed is a day of simple tasks
And blessed is the day of troubles.
Will the day beam shine in the morning
And the bright day shall reign
And I, well, will I, perhaps, will descent
Into mysterious darkness of my fatal tomb?
And the memory of a strange poet will fall into Abyss
The world shall forget me, but you, you, Olga!
Tell me, will you, the maiden of beauty, come to shed a tear
Over the early urn
And think “he loved me, he devoted to me
The gloomy dawn of a troubled life!”
Ah Olga, I did love you,
To you alone I devoted
The gloomy dawn of my troubled life
Yes Olga, I did love you!
My wonderful friend, my dear friend,
Come, for I am your husband, etc.
Where have you gone, o golden days of my spring?