• 1 - Eugene Onegin - Genesis of the Opera (Composition, Synopsis, Libretto, Source)

    YEVGÉNY ONÉGIN (Евгений Онегин - Eugene Onegin)
    Lyric Scenes in Three Acts (1879)
    Music by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky - Пётр Ильич Чайковский (1840-1893)
    Libretto by the composer, his brother Modest, and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky, after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin's novel in verse (1833)

    Setting and time setting - A country estate in Russia, and St. Petersburg, circa 1820
    Approximate running time - 2 hours and 30 minutes

    Characters and voices

    Larina, a landowner - mezzo soprano
    Tatyana, her daughter, a teenager - soprano
    Olga, Tatyana's older sister - contralto
    Filipyevna - an old nursemaid - mezzo soprano
    Yevgeny Onegin - landowner and playboy - baritone
    Lensky - his friend, a poet, the Larins' neighbor and Olga's intended - tenor
    Prince Gremin - Tatyana's husband in the third act - bass
    A Company Commander - bass
    Zaretsky - Lensky's second and duel organizer - bass
    Triquet - a Frenchman - tenor
    Guillot - a valet de chambre, Onegin's man - silent
    Peasants, ballroom guests, landowners, officers


    Act 1 Sc 1 - A garden on the estate of the Larin family.
    The two sisters Olga and Tatyana sing a song yearning for love and happiness.
    Mother Larina and her servant Filipyevna talk about love and marriage.
    Peasants come back from the fields and greet their mistress, engage in songs and dances about the harvest festival.
    Tatyana defines herself as a romantic, and Olga presents herself as cheerful and outgoing.
    Olga's betrothed Lensky arrives, and introduces his friend Onegin from St. Petersburg to the Larins.
    While Lensky courts his Olga, Onegin entertains Tatyana with clever conversation. All exit for supper.

    Act 1 Sc 2 - Tatyana's bedroom.
    Tatyana questions her nurse about love - the old woman replies that she was in an arranged marriage. Tatyana confesses that she has fallen in love with Onegin, and daydreams of him as a romantic hero, akin to the characters she reads about in her preferred literature. Then she writes a rambling but heartfelt letter to him, continuing to be in a feverish excitement until the break of dawn. Tatyana asks Filipyevna to have the letter delivered to Onegin via her grandson. After some trouble understanding the girl, Filipyevna promises to get it done.

    Act 1 Sc 3 - Another part of the Larin garden.
    Peasant girls picking rhubarb sing songs. Tatyana, excited and uneasy, awaits Onegin to come and respond to her letter. He arrives and refuses her, saying that he is not cut for marriage and does not crave or seek love. Tatyana is crushed and humiliated.

    Act 2 Sc 1 - The Larin ballroom.
    The nobility of the neighborhood arrives for a name-day ball in honor of Tatyana. The guests watch while Tatyana and Onegin dance, and gossip about it. Onegin overhears them and feels bored and angry at Lensky for bringing him to such a provincial affair; he decides to provoke his friend by flirting with Olga who responds in kind, which greatly upsets Lensky. A Frenchman Monsieur Triquet entertains the partygoes with couplets for Tatyana. Lensky offends Olga for her attentions to Onegin, who reacts harshly. Onegin and Lensky have a nasty confrontation. Lensky defies Onegin to a duel, to the shock of all present. Under general consternation and attempts to mediate, the two men disregard the appeals to calm, and Onegin accepts the duel.

    Act 2 Sc 2 - A field next to the Larin estate, the following morning - the dueling ground.
    Lensky arrives first with his second Zaretsky. Onegin is late. Lensky has gloomy defeatist thoughts and reminisces about his youth, asks himself if Olga will weep on his grave. Onegin arrives with a servant as his second, which draws some consternation. Both friends reflect that the duel is senseless, but they don't seem to see a way to stop the course of events. The duel starts, and Onegin shoots Lensky dead.

    Act 3 Sc 1 - A ballroom in a great house in St. Petersburg, some years later.
    After a long sojourn abroad, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg and attends a ball at Prince Gremin's home. Guests dance, then the prince enters with Tatyana on his arm. They got married two years earlier. Prince Gremin boasts to Onegin of the bliss of his married life, and tries to introduce Tatyana to him. They recognize each other; Tatyana claims she needs to leave, and does. Onegin is stunned at the transformation of the young naïve teenager into a worldly attractive woman, and falls in love with her, regretting that he once disdained her.

    Act 3 Sc 2 - The drawing room of Prince Gremin's house.
    Tatyana reads a letter from Onegin confessing his love, and is troubled by the old passion. Onegin enters, she confronts him about his intentions and declares that she is faithful to her husband. Onegin begs, Tatyana admits to still loving him but is steadfast in her rejection of him in name of marital fidelity. Onegin feels miserable. Curtain.


    Circumstances of the composition

    The topic of the opera was first suggested to Tchaikovsky by the contralto Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya (1845-1919) in 1877 on the occasion of a social visit that the composer paid to her. Tchaikovsky at first rejected the idea as 'wild' as per his letter to his brother Modest. The objection was linked to the nature of Pushkin's novel and its revered status among the Russian people. Tchaikovsky felt that the novel wasn't properly strong in plot which was rather banal - a dandy rejects a young country girl, she successfully grows into a worldly woman, he tries to seduce her but it is too late. The strength of the novel resided in its character development and social commentary, as well as in the beauty of its literary delivery.

    Soon enough however and after a sleepless night, Tchaikovsky came to embrace the idea, and in late May 1877 he sought out his friend Konstantin Shilovsky to work with him and his brother Modest on the libretto. Shilovsky rather wanted to work on biblical and historical grand themes, and took some convincing from Tchaikovsky to be persuaded on the merits of setting Pushkin's novel to music.

    The trio sought to preserve Pushkin's verses whenever possible, and did little to modify them. It was rather a trimming job, since they reduced the number of characters (e.g., two sisters rather than three) and skipped scenes that in the novel link more linearly the few scenes that they picked for the opera. The ballroom scandalous events in Act 2 were added to the plot (in Pushkin the confrontation is more subdued and Lensky only defies Onegin to a duel the following day). Shilovsky authored the words for Monsieur Triquet's couplets, and Tchaikovsky himself penned the words for Lensky's arioso in Act 1 and Prince Gremin's intervention in Act 3.

    Tchaikovsky got to the task of setting the novel to music right away, beginning with the Letter Scene. He spent June of that year on Shilovsky's country estate and composed the music for the first four scenes.

    During this time Tchaikovsky was completely taken by the story, and developed a profound and indignant dislike for the Onegin character and an identification with Tatyana. Then a striking event took place. A former composition pupil of his, Antonina Milyuokova, wrote him a letter similar to Tatyana's, confessing her love for him. Tchaikovsky was very troubled and conceivably thought that he shouldn't repeat in real life Onegin's error of dismissing his suitor.

    In spite of his homosexual inclinations, Tchaikovsky decided to accept the courtship of Ms. Milyuokova, and impulsively married her. Another factor in this decision may have been the equally precipitous wedding of his friend Shilovsky (also homosexual, and with whom the composer had shared a close bond for ten years) just a short time before Tchaikovsky's decision.

    The marriage took place on July 6, 1877, and was a disaster, a complete fiasco, presumably because Tchaikovsky soon realized how disgusted he was of any consideration of sexual contact with women. After 20 days - and apparently after being unable to consummate the marriage - he left her and took refuge in his sister's estate in Ukraine for one a half months, then went back to Moscow and spent another 12 days with his wife, at which point he fled her for good in September in great emotional turmoil, and traveled to Switzerland to recuperate (they remained legally married to the end of their lives but never co-inhabited again - later Ms. Milyuokova bore three sons to another man). Tchaikovsky, writing to his brother Anatoly, confessed that he was insane when he decided to get married, and shortly thereafter wrote again to Anatoly taking full possession of his own homosexuality, by stating that there was "nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature."

    During his recuperative sojourn in Clarens, Switzerland, Tchaikovsky attacked the task of composing his Fourth Symphony, and got back to Eugene Onegin. By late January 1878 the score was complete except for the duel scene and the orchestral introduction, which Tchaikovsky completed in the hills around San Remo, Italy by the first of February.



    Schigolch's contribution:

    Portrait of Adelaida Simonovich - Valentin Serov

    The libretto, in English:


    And an English translation of Pushkin's original novel:


    In many senses, despite of the existence of several good writers in the 18th century, Pushkin is the father of Russian literature. Onegin was a seminal work, a novel written in verse, that raised Russian language's status in the eyes of his contemporaries, who were considering it as the language of the peasants and the merchants, while French was the language of the aristocracy, of the rich and powerful. Even Tatyana's letter was originally written in French and Pushkin needed to "translate it"!

    So, for Russians, Pushkin is so important as Shakespeare for the English. While Tchaikovsky was not sure at first of adapting such a significant piece, he later was completely taken away by his subject. He and his librettist, Konstantin Shilovsky, were interested mainly in the characters, the relations between them, and foremost about Tatyana, while the novel is more about Onegin, a work more detached, ironic and more critical of the Russian society.

    The famous visit from Onegin and Lensky that is situated at the beggining of the opera, happens well into the novel. There is not a close friendship between both young males, it is just a kind of comradeship faced with the ennui of a life in the country. Out of this ennui, Onegin courts Olga and brings about the duel. Lensky's words before the duel, the well known aria “Kuda, kuda” are taken almost verbatim from the novel, and are arguably the most famous passage of any opera in Russia. Ironically, Pushkin himself would die at a duel, caused by the flirtation of his wife with a French gentleman, six years after he finished the novel.

    After the duel, in the novel there are several pages concerned with Tatyana and Olga, that simply dissapear in the opera. When her family presses her into it, Tatyana finally marries an older bride, Prince Gremin (just the Prince, in the novel). Pushkin makes Onegin write a letter to Tatyana asking for her favours, and she refuses in a splendid monologue, while Tchaikovky prefers the powerful dialogue at the end of the opera, that closes with Onegin's desperation, while in the novel, Pushkin himself says goodbye to the readers.

    This final dialogue, in a recent performance at Paris, with Ludovic Tézier (Onegin) and Olga Guryakova (Tatyana):

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