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Thread: Eugene Onegin: Around the Opera

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  1. #1
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Eugene Onegin: Around the Opera

    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 Malďy 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 premičre was Nikolay Rubinstein, and the student Mariya Klimentova created the role of Tatyana. At the professional premičre 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 premičre 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 premičre 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.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); February 4th, 2012 at 04:34 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  2. #2

    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.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); January 5th, 2018 at 03:41 AM.

  3. #3
    Opera Lively Coordinator - Donor Member Top Contributor Member tyroneslothrop's Avatar
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    Another bit of trivia:

    In the original story, Pushkin sets Tatyana's age to 13, which would have just barely been adolescent. Specifically,

    From Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, Book 4:
    Кому не скучно лицемерить,
    Различно повторять одно,
    Стараться важно в том уверить,
    В чем все уверены давно,
    Всё те же слышать возраженья,
    Уничтожать предрассужденья,
    Которых не было и нет
    У девочки в тринадцать лет!
    which roughly translates to:
    Who is not bored with posturing,
    Tired of repeating the same words,
    To try to convince on
    That which everyone already knows,
    Always the same objections,
    Make the same corrections to prejudices,
    Which never exist,
    In girls of thirteen.
    It is unclear how he envisioned such a young girl of the aristocratic class could be considered marriageable in the Imperial Russia of the 1820's.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Top Contributor Member Florestan's Avatar
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    Interesting twist on Eugene Onegin in the liner notes for the set conducted by Fedoseyev. After noting the importance (in early nineteenth century Russia) of a girl finding a husband to avoid being branded an old maid for the rest of her life, the notes go on,

    It is therefore pure irony, that it is at this party [Tatiana's birthday party] that Lenski challenges his friend Onegin to fight a duel: were it not for this (for him fatal) incident, Madame Larina might never have left for Saint Petersburgt, and Tatiana would never have met Prince Gremin...
    "Ah,non credea mirarti si presto estinto, o fiore." --Bellini, La Sonnambula (also written on his tomb).

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