The Kennedy Center

Eugene Onegin, Lyric Scenes in Three Acts (Libretto by the composer and Konstatin Shilovsky, after Pushkin), Op. 24

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

Tchaikovsky collaborated with the writer Konstantin Shilovsky in producing the libretto for this opera, based on Pushkin's dramatic poem of the same title; he began composing the music in May 1877 and completed the score on February 1, 1878. The first performance was given by students from the Moscow Conservatory at the Maly Theater on March 29, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting; Enrico Bevignani the work's professional premiere at the Bolshoi Theater on January 23, 1881, following which Tchaikovsky revised Act III, and the final version was introduced in St. Petersburg on October 1, 1885, with Eduard N?pravnik conducting. The National Symphony Orchestra has been performing music from Eugene Onegin with conspicuous frequency since its very beginning: Hans Kindler conducted the famous Waltz that opens Act II in the second concert of the orchestra's first season, on November 15, 1931, and as recently as last month, in a Young People's Concert on May 20, Emil de Cou conducted the equally famous Polonaise that opens Act III. Several distinguished sopranos have sung the Letter Scene with the NSO over the years; Galina Vishnevskaya sang it in the first NSO concert conducted by her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, on March 5, 1975, and sang it with him again on September 18, 1980, when he began his fourth season as the orchestra's music director. Tenors have sung Lensky's aria, baritones and basses have sung Onegin's aria and Gremin's, and in an all-Tchaikovsky concert on September 24, 2006, the soprano Irina Mataeva sang the Letter Scene and the tenor Daniil Shtoda sang Lensky's aria, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. This week's concerts, again conducted by Mr. Slatkin, are the orchestra's first performances of the entire opera.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), regarded as the father of Russian music, composed two splendid operas which tended to establish a pattern for his latter-day compatriots in respect to subject matter: his Ivan Sussanin (better-known as A Life for the Tsar) produced in St. Petersburg at the end of 1836, is based on characters and events in Russian history, and Russlan and Ludmilla, which followed in 1842, is based on a fairy tale. Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and others favored the same two genres in their operatic efforts, and in several cases, whether fairy tales or historical sagas, their literary source was the same as Glinka's in Russlan and Ludmilla: the works of Russia's great poet Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky, who composed nearly as many operas as Rimsky-Korsakov, was regarded as having a more "cosmopolitan" outlook than his contemporaries; he did set Schiller's Maid of Orleans, but for the most part he too relied on Russian sources, and, as he put it, he did "not reject the element of fantasy" (the basis of his operas Vakula the Smith, Undine, and Yolanta). One factor that set him apart from the others was his determined resistance to the genre of the historical epic--or, for that matter, any sort of epic. He had nothing good to say about Verdi's Aida, but was unreservedly enthusiastic about Bizet's Carmen. In a letter to his associate and former pupil Sergei Taneyev, he declared, "I do not want kings and queens, popular uprisings, battles, marches--in a word, anything that belongs to grand opera. I am looking for an intimate but powerful drama on the conflict of circumstances which have I have seen or experienced, and which can move me inwardly." Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, one of the most beloved works in all of Russian literature, certainly fit those specifications, and particularly in respect to "circumstances seen or experienced" by Tchaikovsky himself.

Tchaikovsky did not discover the operatic suitability of this well loved narrative poem by himself, but was directed to it by his friend Elizaveta Lavrovskaya. She had been a popular contralto and then, married to Prince Pyotr Tsertelev, became an influential figure in Moscow's salons. When she first suggested Onegin as material for an opera, Tchaikovsky found the idea simply "wild," and made no response, but later the same evening, while dining alone, he thought further about it and found himself determined to take it on, and the very next day he got hold of Konstantin Shilovsky for help in producing a libretto. He acknowledged that the story had "little scope for treatment, and will be poor in stage effect, but the richness of the poetry, the humanity and simplicity of the subject . . . will make up for whatever it lacks in other ways." If ever there was a textbook example of the creative artist in the embrace of irresistible inspiration, this was it: he was simply in love with the poem, and with the thought of bringing it to the stage on its own terms.

He designated his opera "lyric scenes in three acts." The libretto he fashioned in collaboration with Konstantin Shilovsky takes very few liberties with Pushkin's tale, since it was that tale just as Pushkin wrote it, after all, that had won his heart. The Letter Scene, which occurs in the middle of Act I, was the first part of the work he composed; Tchaikovsky saw this episode as the kernel from which the entire drama grew, and once he created the music for it he had defined the character of the opera as a whole.

The letter quoted above was written in January 1878, when Tchaikovsky had completed the score of his Fourth Symphony and sent it to Taneyev for preparation of a piano edition. He had begun both that symphony and Eugene Onegin in May of the previous year, and was at the point of orchestrating the opera's final act. The Fourth Symphony, of course, is no less dramatic a work than the opera, and the period in which they were composed was an incredibly dramatic time in Tchaikovsky's personal life. He had recently begun an unusual relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who undertook to provide him with an allowance that freed him from his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory and enabled him to devote all his energies to composition--on the curious condition that he and she never meet in person. Their correspondence, however, attained a very intimate level. In his letters he described in detail his "program" for the Fourth Symphony, which he described as "our symphony" (the dedication in the score reads simply, "To my dearest friend"), and in an earlier phase he wrote to her of another woman who came into his life at about the time he began working on both the symphony and the opera.

It was an insanely reckless act. As Tchaikovsky acknowledged in a remarkably candid letter to Mme. von Meck, he quickly came to understand he had no feeling of affection for his bride, and in fact found her repulsive, yet he could not place any blame on her. The immediate consequences, including an apparent suicide attempt on his part and then an escape to Switzerland, brought about a quick and permanent separation, arranged through his brothers Anatoly and Modest. (His bride, however, never gave him a divorce; she outlived him by twenty-four years, but had a rough time, bearing several children and ending her days in a madhouse.)

How Tchaikovsky managed to compose not one, but two certifiable masterworks in major forms in so relatively short a time, and amid major upheavals in his personal life, is as hard to explain as his incredible misjudgment in allowing himself to be drawn into such a marriage, but his inspiration was really at fever pitch and gave him utter confidence in his creative powers. By the time he completed his setting of Pushkin's "novel in verse," however, his own life had become a bit of a Russian novel, as he himself was all too aware, and his doubts about Onegin's finding a receptive public were such that he insisted on a non-professional performance before permitting the formal premiere at the Bolshoi Theater two years later (January 23, 1881). Following the Bolshoi presentation Tchaikovsky substantially revised the third act, and his final version was introduced in St. Petersburg on October 1, 1885.

John Warrack, in his biography of Tchaikovsky, wrote pointedly on the significance of Eugene Onegin, as one of the finest of Pushkin's works, the one that "gave to the modern Russian language its crucial masterpiece, opening the way to the great tradition of imaginative literature." Warrack points out that there "is no posturing, no gesticulating; and if Onegin himself has an obviously Byronic flavour as Romantic outsider, there is an un-Byronic economy in the poetry. The apparently casual framework, deriving from [Byron's] Don Juan, can include passages of acute observation, of intense lyrical beauty, of witty satire, of personal involvement on Pushkin's part alternating with ironic detachment, of charming and shrewd characterization--all at the service of a strong and moving narrative." While acknowledging that many other composers wrote operas on works by Pushkin, Warrack concludes that "we may be grateful that Eugene Onegin was left to the composer whose talents were most true to it."

Certainly in this opera one senses the composer?s feeling of being "at home" with his material. Not merely because it is a Russian story, nor even because its relating to his own experience, but because the "flavour" of the work, and the truth of its characters as Pushkin delineated them, provided Tchaikovsky with exactly the sort of impetus that drew his own deepest and truest response--and he did respond to each of them, individually and deeply. The music he created for Onegin is so unerringly tailored to the contours, rhythms and emotional climate of Pushkin's creation in every detail that to change a single phrase, to transfer a line from a clarinet, say, to a viola, would diminish its remarkable power and conviction. In the scenes in the country, in those in fashionable St. Petersburg, the music conveys the atmosphere with a certainty beyond contrivance and beyond challenge.

A little more than a year before he began work on Onegin, Tchaikovsky completed the earliest of his great ballet scores, Swan Lake. He had already shown his instincts for the dance in his earliest opera, The Voyevoda, and in his first three symphonies, among other works. In Onegin he did not interrupt the action with a traditional ballet (such as demanded by the members of the Jockey Club in Paris, even from Wagner), but gave brief but glorious dance numbers meaningful parts in sustaining and empowering the dramatic momentum, rather than interrupting it.

In its final version, introduced in St. Petersburg in 1885, Onegin engendered a great deal of enthusiasm among Tchaikovsky's fellow musicians, and not only in Russia. Tchaikovsky enjoyed a huge success when he conducted the work in Prague in November 1888 (the first performance outside Russia); Antonin Dvorak, whom he had met there earlier that year, wrote him a letter full of praise for the opera that had touched him so deeply. The German premiere took place in Hamburg on January 19, 1892. Tchaikovsky was again scheduled to conduct, and he did preside at the final rehearsal, but he was so impressed by the care with which Gustav Mahler (who was then director of the Hamburg Opera) had prepared the production, by the enthusiasm Mahler expressed for the work, and by his brilliant conducting of Tannhauser on the 18th, that he happily invited Mahler to take over the premiere. It has been suggested that, in addition to his obvious admiration for Mahler's conducting, Tchaikovsky may have feared that the German translation of the text might have thrown him off if he himself had conducted as scheduled; in any event, Mahler's enthusiasm was genuine, and he introduced Onegin to Vienna in his first season as director of the Vienna Opera.

The opera's action, which takes place in the early part of the nineteenth century, may be summarized as follows.

Act I. The opening scene is in the garden of the country estate of the Larin family, where Mme. Larina and the nurse Filipyevna are making jam. Inside the house, the two daughters are singing. Olga, lively and outgoing, is engaged to Vladimir Lensky, a young poet. Tatiana, a more introspective sort, is given to romantic fantasies; she begins to read one of the novels feeding those fantasies, and her mother warns her about losing touch with the real world. Lensky arrives, bringing with him his jaded St. Petersburg friend Eugene (Evgeny) Onegin, who registers surprise that Lensky would have chosen the less interesting of the sisters as his bride. Tatiana is swept away by Onegin, in whom she sees her story-book hero. Onegin is too deep within himself to notice, but the nurse Filipyevna does.

In Scene 2 Tatiana, preparing for bed, is too restless to sleep, asks her nurse for stories of her youth, and admits to her that she is in love. Then, sending the nurse out, she writes a letter to Onegin in which she pours out her heart without reservation. She finishes the letter only as the sun rises, and gives it to Filipyevna to give to the guest. Scene 3 is once again in the garden, where workers are gathering fruit. Tatiana is breathless with anticipation of the meeting Onegin has arranged with her, but when he appears her hopes are dashed: he tells her that while he was touched by her sincerity he is too disillusioned to think about love, and would not wish to take advantage of her trust.

Act II. Scene 1 is Tatiana's festive birthday party. The guests are dancing a waltz, one that is at once surpassingly brilliant and engagingly warm-hearted, its vigor inclining toward the character of the Landler from which the Viennese waltz developed; in all, a quite exceptional dance piece, even for Tchaikovsky. The aged Frenchman Triquet sings some verses in her honor. Onegin dances with her, but pointedly dances much more frequently with Olga, much to the consternation of his friend Lensky, who makes a scene and challenges him to a duel. Everyone is appalled, but there is no backing down for either of the men.

Scene 2 takes place the next morning. Lensky arrives early at the appointed spot on a river bank; he sings his poignant soliloquy on the loss of his "golden youth" and his treasured friendship with Onegin, musing on the likely outcome of the impending duel. Onegin arrives and both meditate on the foolishness of their quarrel and the thought of reconciliation, but they are honor-bound to proceed with the duel--in which Lensky is shot dead.

Act III opens with another festive occasion: several years have passed, and the scene is a great house in St. Petersburg, where instead of an ingratiating waltz the guests dance a more a grander and more formal polonaise. Onegin is among them, having returned from some time abroad, brooding over his lonely existence and his loss of his friend Lensky in the senseless duel. The old Prince Gremin (a cousin of his) enters with a younger woman on his arm, as the guests dance an Ecossaise (a predecessor of the "schottische," very popular in Pushkin's time). She joins the ladies, who are drawn to her, and Onegin greets the Prince, who advises that he has recently married, and his wife of two years is none other than Tatiana, now radiating grace and assurance. Both she and Onegin are stunned to find each other present. Before introducing her, Gremin sings of how his life has been brightened by her devotion and unpretentiousness. In facing each other, Tatiana and Onegin manage to avoid awkwardness, but she pleads fatigue, and leaves with her husband. Onegin is astounded by the power of his feelings for her, and resolves to see her.

The opera's final scene takes place in the drawing room of Gremin's house, where Tatiana awaits Onegin's visit. When he arrives and declares his love, she recalls to him the scene between them after he had read her letter. She admits she feels love for him, but, just as his earlier rejection of her had been motivated by an honorable impulse, now a similar sense of honor rules that she stand by her husband. With great difficulty but also great resolve, she leaves the room; Onegin is left alone, as shaken as he had been after his duel with Lensky, and after a moment he rushes out of the house.

In his letters to Mme. von Meck and others over the years, Tchaikovsky remarked on the curious parallel of Antonina Milyukova's sending him love letters at the very time he was writing the music for Tatiana's letter to Onegin. For Pushkin himself, there was a tragic connection with the pitiful character of the decidedly lesser poet Lensky: Pushkin, described as "a compulsive duelist," provoked a duel with George d'Anthes, the adopted son of the Dutch ambassador, accusing him of insulting his wife; the great Russian poet was 37 years old when D'Anthes shot him in January 1837.