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 to the eyes of his contemporaries, that 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 located at the beggining of the opera, it happens already well into the novel. There is not a close friendship between both young males, 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” is taken almost verbatim from the novel, and is arguably the most famous passage of any opera in Russia. Ironically, Pushkin himself will die at a duel, caused by the flirtation of his wife with a French gentleman.
After the duel, in the novel there are several pages concerned with Tatyana and Olga, that simply dissapear in the opera. When her family press 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 say goodbye to the readers.
This final dialogue, in a recent performance at Paris, with Ludovic Tézier (Onegin) and Olga Guryakova (Tatyana):