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Based on the novel in verse Eugene Onegin (1833) by Alexander Pushkin. The opera premiered on March 29, 1879 at the Maly Theatre, Moscow Conservatory.
Alexander Pushkin was the most influential Russian literary figure of the early Romantic period. Born in Moscow in 1799, he lived a brief 37 years, ironically dying in a duel over a lady’s honor, a fate similar to that of Onegin’s friend Lensky in Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin.
Pushkin was to Russian literature what Geothe was to German literature and Dante to Italian literature – an author that embodied the very spirit of a nation and which a people revered and emulated. In Onegin, Pushkin created a style of drama told through poetry, yet using a vernacular speech that could be appreciated by any Russian of his age. His works are studied today in schools throughout the Slavic world, just as Shakespeare’s are studied throughout the English speaking world. It would not be until Leo Tolstoy in the late 19th century, that Russian literature would find another author of his influence and stature.
Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is emblematic of the period – a soul searching, highly romantic and passionate work. It is no wonder that the iconoclastic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky would select Pushkin’s masterpiece as the subject of his fifth opera, which would become his first true success in the opera house.
Tchaikovsky’s musical output is impressive. Since he was equally at home writing chamber music, solo piano works, songs, sacred music, operas and of course ballets, concerti and symphonies, it is surprising to know that he pursued his musical education and career against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to become a civil servant. He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 and completed his first symphony four years later.
Although Tchaikovsky was a tremendously successful composer, his personal life would be consumed by a disastrous marriage, his suppressed homosexuality, bouts of depression and later in life the collapse of his long relationship with his patron Nadezha von Meck. Despite his personal challenges, he created some of the world’s most beloved music; among which are the symphonies numbers four, five and six, the Pathetique, the ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker, the Piano Concerto, his Violin Concerto, the 1812 Overture and his operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.
Onegin was written in a time of relative contentment for Tchaikovsky; before his marriage would dissolve, and he was elated with the results. He is said to have described his writing Eugene Onegin as being an act of ‘indescribable pleasure and enthusiasm”. But not unlike Pushkin’s anti-hero, the melancholy Tchaikovsky would add that Onegin “will never have a success . . .this opera has no future.”
To place Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in the context of other works, Onegin was premiered in 1879, but written concurrently with his Fourth Symphony, which premiered two years earlier in 1877, the Fifth Symphony more than ten years later in 1888, and The Nutcracker in 1892, some thirteen years later, and one year before his death at the age of 53 in the year 1893.
Within the context of other great operas, consider first that Russia, and particularly Petersburg society, were well within the sphere of European influence, particularly as it pertained to art and architecture – for example, Verdi wrote La forza del desitno in 1862 for the Imperial Theater at St. Petersburg. Pivoting around Onegin’s premiere in 1879 are Boris Godonuv in 1874, Carmen in 1875, and the premieres of Wagner’s Ring Cycle between 1869 and 1876.
The curtain rises on a garden at the home of the well-to-do widow Madam Larina. Larina and the nurse Filipevna are gossiping while Larina’s daughters, Olga and Tatyana, can be heard singing. The family is celebrating the end of the harvest, which the peasants announce in a beautiful, emblematically Russian chorus. Olga is taking part in the celebrations, while Tatyana, the older sister remains. Olga’s fiance Lensky arrives for a visit, and with him he has brought his new friend Eugene Onegin. Onegin has recently left St. Petersburg to claim his inheritance and estate upon the death of his wealthy uncle. He is well educated, egotistical, bored with the world and melancholy; the perfect 19th century anti-hero. The simple country girl, Tatyana, cannot help but fall in love with him. After the appropriate introductions, Lensky sings of his love for Olga.
Later that evening, alone in her room, Tatyana writes a long, passionate letter to Onegin, confessing her feelings and begging him to meet her. Her longing are beautifully expressed in the opening of the famous Letter Scene:
In the garden a few days later, Onegin arrives to meet Tatyana. He is courteous but cool. He dismisses her passionate declaration of love and says he does not have a steady character. He therefore begs Tatyana to forget him, which devastates the young girl.
A ball is held at Madam Larina’s to celebrate Tatyana’s name day. The guests dance to the famous Waltz. Monsieur Triquet, the dancing master, sings a song in honor of Olga. The simple country people have been gossiping about Onegin and Tatyana. He overhears this gossip and to spite the gossipers, he flirts with Olga and dances the Mazurka with her. This angers his friend Lensky, who believes his honor has been slighted. He confronts Onegin and challenges him to a duel.
Beside an old mill at dawn the next morning. Lensky arrives at the appointed place and time with his friend Zaretsky, who will be his second for the duel. Lensky sings of lost youth, of how fate will carry him to his destiny. Onegin arrives with his servant. Despite their friendship, neither is willing to reconcile. The duel takes place. Onegin kills his friend Lensky in the duel.
Six years later. A grand ball is being given at the St. Petersburg home of Prince Gremin. Here Tchaikovsky treats us to a grand ballet with the famous Polonaise. Onegin has been traveling after the death of his friend Lensky. Unexpectedly, he arrives at the ball. He sees Tatyana at the ball. She is now the wife of Prince Gremin, and the hostess of the evening. Seeing how she has grown from a simple country girl into a mature, sophisticated woman, Onegin realizes he has loved her all along. Gremin tells Onegin and his guests how Tatyana has transformed his life, and that a wise man will surrender to true love.
In an antechamber, Tatyana has agreed to see Onegin. He passionately declares his love for her, much as she had done six years before. She resists him, and stands firm in her fidelity to her husband. She dismisses him – love is unfulfilled as the curtain falls.
The Cast (in order of vocal appearance)
Madam Larina (mezzo-soprano) – Widow, head of the Larin household, mother of Tatyana and Olga
Filipevna (mezzo-soprano) - Servant and former governess to Tatyana and Olga
Olga (mezzo-soprano) – Younger sister to Tatyana
Tatyana (soprano) – A young country girl
Lensky (tenor) – A country poet; fiancée of Olga
Onegin (baritone) – St. Petersburg nobleman, heir to his uncle’s country estate
Triquet (tenor) - Frenchman, exiled from Paris for illicit sexual conduct
Prince Gremin (bass) – Nobleman in the service of the Emperor
Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinski, a small town in present-day Udmurtia, formerly a province of Vyatka in the Russian Empire. His father was an engineer of Ukrainian descent who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Department of Mines. The composer's mother, Alexandra Andreyevna née d'Assier, was of French ancestry on her father's side, and was the second of Ilya's three wives. Tchaikovsky had four brothers, a sister and a half-sister Zinaida from his father's first marriage.
Tchaikovsky began piano lessons at the age of five. A precocious pupil, he could read music as adeptly as his teacher within three years. His parents were initially supportive of his musical talents, and encouraged his study of the piano. However, his parents' passion for his musical talent soon cooled, and in 1850, the family decided to send him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg. At the age of 19, he graduated from the School of Jurisprudence with the rank of titular counselor, and was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later he became a junior assistant and two months after that, a senior assistant, where he remained for the rest of his three-year civil service career. In1854, Tchaikovsky suffered the shock of his mother's death from cholera. Tchaikovsky authority David Brown calls it "the crucial event of [Tchaikovsky's] years at the School of Jurisprudence". Tchaikovsky bemoaned the loss of his mother for the rest of his life.
At the age of 21, Tchaikovsky attended classes in music theory organized by the Russian Musical Society and taught by Nikolai Zaremba. A year later he followed Zaremba to the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory. From 1862 to 1865 he studied harmony and counterpoint with Zaremba, while Anton Rubinstein, director and founder of the Conservatory, taught him instrumentation and composition. In 1863, Tchaikovsky abandoned his civil service career and began studying music full-time, graduating from the Conservatory in December 1865.
In April 1877 Tchaikovsky's favorite pupil, Vladimir Shilovsky, married suddenly. Shilovsky's wedding may in turn have spurred Tchaikovsky to consider such a step himself. There followezd Tchaikovsky's ill-starred marriage to one of his former composition students, Antonia Miliukova. The brief time with his wife drove him to an emotional crisis, which was followed by a stay in Clarens, Switzerland, for rest and recovery. They remained legally married but never lived together again nor had any children. Tchaikovsky's marital debacle may have forced him to face the full truth concerning his sexuality. He apparently never again considered matrimony as a camouflage or escape, nor considered himself capable of loving women in the same manner as men.
In many ways, Tchaikovsky's life and career placed him uncomfortably between different worlds, and this conflict was a central aspect of his creative life. Perhaps this can be seen most clearly in his position as a Russian composer. Russia had a long history of cultural contact with the West. Tchaikovsky's musical training at the newly founded St. Petersburg conservatory was likewise influenced by European ideals. As a member of the musical elite of Russia, he found that his music was too advanced and modern to please the growing and influential champions of a Russian national style.
He found favor with the Russian public, especially with his first symphonies. At the same time, his homosexuality placed him in an untenable position. Unable to come to terms with it, he married an admirer, hoping to resolve his problems in domestic life. This proved a failure, and in desperation he fled both the marriage and his post at the Conservatory.
He was fortunate to have at this time the support of the eccentric Nadezhda von Meck, allowing him to recover emotionally and continue his career, touring Europe and America. This period of despair is framed by two periods of great creativity. Before the crisis, he had written many of his most famous works, including his first three symphonies, the ballet Swan Lake, and his Romeo and Juliet overture. During the time of his greatest difficulty, he completed his monumental Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin.
In 1884, spurred by the composer Balakirev, Tchaikovsky entered a final productive period, completing his last three symphonies and the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. His final work, the Sixth Symphony, deals powerfully with nothing less than the ideas of life, struggle and death. Nine days after its premiere, Tchaikovsky died. The circumstances of his death are still a matter of conjecture.
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