• 2 - Eugene Onegin - Around the Opera (Trivia)

    An interesting fact surrounding this opera is that it came a long way after a very slow start: it premiered as a student production (at the Malïy Theater in Moscow, on March 29, 1879, with student singers from the Moscow Conservatory), and only got a professional performance at the Bolshoi one year and ten months later, on January 23, 1881.

    Reception wasn't that great, especially as compared to the wild success of Maid of Orleans. Many critics complained that Tchaikovsky shouldn't have messed with one of Russia's most beloved works of literature.

    Outside Russia the initial reception was lukewarm as well, and it was slow to conquer other European cities, being seen as a Russian curiosity.


    Today, however, Eugene Onegin enjoys a healthy popularity, and is well established in the repertoire, having achieved the status of one of the two most popular operas by Tchaikovsky, together with Pique Dame, and has surpassed in popularity the very Maid of Orleans that had initially overshadowed it.

    The choice of students to perform the opera first was, however, one that Tchaikovsky himself exerted. He was very much interested in impacting on the opera "clarity and definition of character" as he put himself in a letter to his brother. He wanted his performers to be subtle in their characterization, and was afraid that seasoned opera singers would just be content in singing it beautifully, while students might get more passionate about the acting. In this, Tchaikovsky anticipated today's trend of granting to acting a lot more importance in opera productions.

    Part of the reason for the initial subdued reaction to the opera may reside in the fact that it departed with the conventions of the time in various ways - not only due to the unusual fractured timeline, but also in distributing the vocal parts - the baritone (Onegin) is paired off with the soprano (Tatyana) and the tenor (Lensky) with the contralto (Olga). Only the bass part is conventional (the elderly husband).

    Tchaikovsky wrote to his pupil Sergey Taneyev saying "I don't give a damn about it not being a stageable opera. It has been well known for some time that I have no sense of stagecraft..." Later he added in a different letter to the same addressee: "If opera, as you maintain, is a portrayal of action which is not found in Onegin, I am prepared to say that Onegin is not an opera, but something different."

    The conductor for the première was Nikolay Rubinstein, and the student Mariya Klimentova created the role of Tatyana. At the professional première the conductor was Enrico Bevignani.

    Tchaikovsky was clearly interested in the emotions involved in the opera, rather than in organized story-telling. This is precisely why he called it "lyrical scenes in three acts and seven tableaux" and did not bother with a linear narration, skipping large chunks of the source material.

    A bit of trivia:

    Act I of Eugene Onegin was composed by Tchaikovsky in the same Swiss town - Clarens - where 36 years later Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring. While in Clarens (recuperating from his failed marriage) Tchaikovsky also composed his Violin Concerto.

    Also simultaneous in composition with this opera is Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, composed within the same 8-month period when he was working on Eugene Onegin. The symphony took slightly less time (6 months).

    Tchaikovsky later revised the 3rd act and this new version was first given at the Mariinsky on October 1, 1885, under Eduard Nápravník. Emiliya Pavlovskaya was a spectacular Tatyana in this production. The écossaises of the third act were added to the score during this production, at the request of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Intendant of the Imperial Theaters.

    The first performance outside Russia was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself, and happened in Prague, sung in Czech.

    Another notable city première was the one in Hamburg on January 19, 1892, in the presence of Tchaikovsky and conducted by Mahler. Tchaikovsky was mightily impressed with Mahler's conducting of his work, and attributed the wild applause and long curtain calls to the maestro's genius.

    England first saw Eugene Onegin in 1892 as well, sung in English, and the United States première was at the Met in 1920, sung in Italian.

    There were two movies made of the opera, a Russian one from 1958 directed by Roman Tikhomirov with actors lip syncing to Bolshoi Theater singers, and the other one was British, from 1988, directed by Petr Weigl, with Sir Solti as the conductor.

    In Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters, Gremin's love aria is hummed by characters.


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