Operapedia: Eugene Onegin
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Operapedia: Eugene Onegin 

Henry Stewart pours his heart out to Tchaikovsky’s greatest opera.

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◀︎ First Performances

The idea for the opera was first suggested to Tchaikovsky in 1877 by Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya, an acquaintance and noted contralto. Initially hesitant, the composer soon threw himself into the project, writing the music in eight months, with some breaks for his Fourth Symphony and his brief and disastrous marriage. The first performance was by students at the Moscow Conservatory in March 1879, followed by a professional premiere at the Bolshoi in 1881. “The scenery was not new and left much to be desired,” Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote. “The singers … were lacking in experience…. The performance evoked much applause, but more for the composer than for the opera itself.”


The pianist Anton Rubinstein attended the student premiere and criticized the opera privately. Years later, he’d changed his mind; when his wife reminded him of what he’d said, he told her, “What do you know about it? No one who has been brought up upon gypsy songs and Italian opera has any right to criticize such a composition.” In 1892, Tchaikovsky visited Hamburg before the premiere there. “The conductor here … actually has genius, and he ardently desires to conduct the first performance,” Tchaikovsky wrote. The conductor, “in love with Onegin,” was Gustav Mahler, whose enthusiasm was not infectious. “The opera was not much applauded” in Hamburg, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote.
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Something Completely Different

Kasper Holten’s 2013 production at Covent Garden framed the story as Onegin and Tatiana looking back on their lives; ballet dancers played their younger selves. Tchaikovsky’s score functioned for Holten as the novel’s third-person narrator. “The music doesn’t just live with the characters in their emotional waves of the moment,” he wrote. “It also … filters those moments through a sense of sadness, of loss and knowledge of the impending disaster.” Reactions were mixed, and some booed Holten. “I’m all for innovative productions,” wrote one commenter on the company’s website, “but not at the expense of overall coherence.”

Perennial Favorite

In Act III, Prince Gremin, whom Tatiana has married, sings a famous aria (“Lyubvi vse vozrastï pokornï”) about the power of love and how it has changed his life—establishing him as the anti-Onegin, who in Act I so haughtily rejects Tatiana and the institution of marriage. It is a classic aria for lyric bass; the melody is gushing but not especially complicated, which is why the Russian FedEx man (Leonid Citer) in the 2000 Tom Hanks movie Cast Away gets away with singing it, as he delivers a package to an American in a cowboy hat. Its use in the film underscores the movie’s mushy themes.
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◀︎ Hit Tune

In Tatiana’s Act I letter scene, popular even when the opera was not, she pours her heart out to Onegin, whom she has just met. “In some fourteen minutes of music … the heart of a young girl is exposed, her innocence, her pride, her breathless intensity,” Mary Ellis Peltz once wrote in OPERA NEWS. “We have penetrated a sanctum.” Great interpreters such as Anna Netrebko make this plain. Tchaikovsky, who struggled at times with his homosexuality, may have found inspiration in his own life for Tatiana’s effusive but thwarted affection; while composing Onegin, in May 1877, he also received a Tatiana-esque letter from a former student, Antonina Milyukova, whom he soon wed. It lasted nine weeks before “he fled in a state of near breakdown,” reports the Independent. These days, we might call this a “lavender marriage,” like Rock Hudson’s to Phyllis Gates.

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The Basics

A world-weary heir rejects the affections of a country girl, then kills his best friend in a duel. Years later he finally falls in love with the girl, now a married noblewoman, but she rebuffs him.      

The Plot Thickens

The opera was based on Alexander Pushkin’s popular verse novel, which was “loved for the telling, not the tale,” Richard Taruskin writes in The Grove Dictionary of Opera. Tchaikovsky “perceived … that music of a sort he was uniquely inclined and equipped to write could perform exactly those functions for which Pushkin’s narrative voice was prized.” “I know there will be little movement and theatrical effectiveness,” Tchaikovsky wrote of the opera. “But the overall poetic quality … will be able to counterbalance these shortcomings.” He was right: it’s a ravishing opera. It just took some time for people to push Pushkin aside and embrace it.
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In Pop Culture

Lenski’s aria in Act II, “Kuda, kuda,” sung before the duel stupidly instigated by his bored and petty friend, Onegin, is a true showstopper, anguished and wailing. Anthony Minghella employed the aria in his 1999 film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. The reference is as perfect as the one opera production Minghella ever directed, Madama Butterfly (still in repertory at the Met); novelist Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, murderer and romantic, seems drawn from parts of both Lenski and Onegin. He’s dueling with himself. Matt Damon’s tearful, ambiguous self-recognition as he watches the scene onstage, as Cate Blanchett’s date at the opera, is haunting.

The Performance We Wish We'd Seen

“Tchaikovsky has been a favorite of American concertgoing audiences,” critic Irving Kolodin wrote in 1957. But his operas had “enjoyed little favor either with singers or conductors.” One notable advocate, however, was Rudolf Bing, longtime manager of the Met, who had a new Onegin, directed by Peter Brook, open the 1957–58 season. “Mr. Bing dispensed cups of vodka, instead of the usual coffee, to the opening-night standee line,” OPERA NEWS reported. It was the first performance there since the opera’s house premiere in 1920, in which, in Act I, Onegin and Lenski had arrived at the Larin estate in a carriage pulled by real horses.
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◀︎ On Background

For Tchaikovsky, OPERA NEWS reported in 1957, “The ambition to write a successful opera [was] a lifelong urge. There hardly [was] a period in his life when he [was] not contemplating or actually composing an opera.” But in a letter he expressed ambivalence toward the medium. “You do not hesitate to speak of [opera] as a lower form of art,” he wrote in 1883 to his confidante Nadezhda von Meck. “In my heart I have felt the same and intend henceforth to renounce operatic music; although you must acknowledge opera possesses the advantage of touching the musical feeling of the masses.” In all, he composed ten operas (three after 1883!), only three or four of which are still performed.

Where It Is This Season

Twenty-seven productions have been announced through June, including this month in Cardiff, Zurich, Moscow and Kansas City.   


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