September 27. 2013.
Eugene Onegin, (Russian: Евгений Онегин, Yevgény Onégin) is an opera (“lyrical scenes”) in 3 acts (7 scenes). The libretto was written by Konstantin Shilovsky and the composer and his brother Modest, and is based on the novel in verse by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (6 June 1799 – 10 February 1837) the great Russian author of the Romantic era, who is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Eugene Onegin is a well-known example of lyric opera; the libretto very closely follows Pushkin’s original, retaining much of his poetry, to which Tchaikovsky adds music of a dramatic nature. The story concerns a selfish hero who lives to regret his blasé rejection of a young woman’s love and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend.
Notoriously touchy about his honour, Pushkin fought a total of twenty-nine duels, and was fatally wounded in such an encounter with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès. D’Anthès, a French officer serving with the Chevalier Guard Regiment, had been attempting to seduce the poet’s wife, Natalya Pushkina. Pushkin’s early death at the age of 37 is still regarded as a catastrophe for Russian literature.
One of the major characters, Lensky, the poet, in Onegin, dies the same way, also in a young age. It’s almost uncanny that in this work Pushkin exactly described his own death five years before he died.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893) was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, and chamber music. Some of these are among the most popular concert and theatrical music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States.
In May 1877, the opera singer Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya spoke to Tchaikovsky about creating an opera based on the plot of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin. At first this idea seemed wild to the composer, according to his memoirs. 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. He was soon growing excited about the suggestion and created the scenarios in one night before starting the composition of the music.
Tchaikovsky used original verses from Pushkin’s novel and chose scenes that involved the emotional world and fortunes of his heroes, calling the opera “lyrical scenes.” The opera is episodic; there is no continuous story, just selected highlights of Onegin’s life. Since the original story was so well known, Tchaikovsky knew his audience could easily fill in any details that he omitted. A similar treatment is found in Puccini’s La bohème. The composer had finished the opera by January 1878.
The opera was first performed in Moscow in 1879. Outside Russia the initial reception was lukewarm, and it was slow to conquer other European cities, being seen as a Russian curiosity. The first performance outside Russia took place on 6 December 1888 in Prague conducted by Tchaikovsky himself.
The first performance in Hamburg, on 19 January 1892, was conducted by Gustav Mahler, in the composer’s presence. Tchaikovsky was applauded after each scene and received curtain calls at the end. He attributed its success to Mahler, whom he described as “not some average sort, but simply a genius burning with a desire to conduct”.
The first performance in England took place on 17 October 1892 at the Olympic Theatre in London with Henry J. Wood conducting. This performance was sung in English, to a text translated by H. S. Edwards.
Vienna first saw Eugene Onegin on 19 November 1897, conducted by Gustav Mahler.
The United States premiere was given on 24 March 1920 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera was sung in Italian.
Soon the opera became a favourite of audiences all over the world. Pushkin’s masterpiece inspired many artists. Besides the famous opera, it has ballet versions: John Cranko choreographed a three-act ballet using Tchaikovsky’s music in an arrangement by Kurt-Heinz Stolze. However, Stolze did not use any music from Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name. Instead, he orchestrated some little-known piano works by Tchaikovsky such as The Seasons, along with themes from the opera Cherevichki and the latter part of the symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini.
Choreographer Boris Eifman staged modern rendition of Eugene Onegin as a ballet taking place in modern Moscow. Performed by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, music by Alexander Sitkovetsky, with excerpts from Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin”.
A staged version was adapted by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and slated for production in the Soviet Union in 1936, directed by Alexander Tairov and with incidental music by Sergei Prokofiev as part of the centennial celebration of Pushkin’s death. However, due to threats of Stalinist repercussion for artistic liberties taken during the production, and artistic differences between Tairov and Krzhizhanovsky, rehearsals were abandoned and the production was never put on.
Christopher Webber’s play Tatyana was written for Nottingham Playhouse in 1989. It successfully combines spoken dialogue and narration from the book, with music arranged from Tchaikovsky’s operatic score, and incorporates some striking theatrical sequences inspired by Tatyana’s dreams in the original. The title role was played by Josie Lawrence, and the director was Pip Broughton.
There are several film versions, too, both of Pushkin’s work and Tchaikovsky’s opera.
Cineplex Theatres Live from the Met series, October 5. 2013. Encore: November 16. – 18. 2013.