Eugene Onegin In Focus
Premiere: Maly Theater, Moscow, 1879, with students from the Moscow Conservatory. Professional premiere: Bolshoi Theater, 1881
Tchaikovsky’s many moods—tender, grand, melancholy—are all given free rein in Eugene Onegin, the composer’s lush adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s iconic text of Russian literature. The great poet re-imagined the Byronic model of the restless romantic anti-hero as the definitive bored Russian aristocrat caught between convention and ennui; Tchaikovsky, similarly, took Western European operatic forms and transformed them into an authentic and undeniably Russian work. At the core of the opera is the young girl Tatiana, who grows from a sentimental adolescent into a complete woman in one of the operatic stage’s most convincing character developments. Always popular in Russia, Eugene Onegin stands at the heart of the international repertory and commands as much admiration among experts as affection among newcomers.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) enjoyed tremendous fame during his lifetime as a composer of symphonic music and ballets. His operas have achieved a steadily growing popularity outside of Russia. The libretto for Eugene Onegin was largely put together by the composer himself, with help from his brother Modest (1850–1916) and others. The source of the libretto is the mock-epic verse novel of the same name by Pushkin (1799–1837), whose position in Russian literature can be compared only to that of Shakespeare in English. Pushkin’s body of work is marked by a wide range of tone and style, and his writings have been the source of many other Russian operas of note (such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, and Tchaikovsky’s own The Queen of Spades). Tchaikovsky specifically chose the most emotional and dramatic moments from Pushkin’s poem and called his work “lyric scenes,” emphasizing the episodic, rather than the strictly narrative, nature of his libretto.
Pushkin presents a vast overview of old Russian society around 1820, which Tchaikovsky’s original score neatly divides into each of its three acts: from the timeless rituals of country life to the rural gentry with its troubles and pleasures and, finally, the glittering imperial aristocracy of St. Petersburg. Deborah Warner’s production places the action in the later 19th century, around the time of the opera’s premiere.
Tchaikovsky’s universally beloved lyric gifts are at their most powerful and multilayered in this opera. Rich ensembles punctuate the work, including a quartet for women near the beginning, an elaborate choral ensemble that concludes the first scene of Act II, and a haunting fugue for tenor and baritone in Act II, Scene 2. The vocal solos are among the most striking in the repertory: anyone who can remember the first stirrings of love will be moved by Tatiana’s 12-minute “Letter Scene” in Act I, in which she rhapsodically composes a letter to Onegin in an outpouring of gorgeous melody. This is rivaled in popularity by the tenor’s moving farewell to his young life in Act II, while the title role’s Act III narrative on the pointlessness of life borders on the Wagnerian. Interspersed among these great solos are finely honed character pieces, such as the French tutor’s charming birthday serenade to Tatiana (in French) and the bass Prince Gremin’s moving ode to the surprise of finding love late in life. Throughout the opera, Tchaikovsky’s unique mastery of dance music provides episodes of ballet that reflect and augment the drama.
Eugene Onegin at the Met
Eugene Onegin premiered at the Met in 1920, sung in Italian by a cast headed by baritone Giuseppe DeLuca and soprano Claudia Muzio. After a total of eight performances in two consecutive seasons, the opera disappeared from the Met until 1957, when it was presented in English with George London, Lucine Amara, and Richard Tucker with Peter Brook directing. Onegin appeared in Russian in 1977 with Sherrill Milnes in the title role, conducted by James Levine. Robert Carsen directed a new production in 1997 that featured Vladimir Chernov, Galina Gorchakova, and Neil Shicoff, with Antonio Pappano conducting in his Met debut. Other notable stars to have appeared in the opera include Mirella Freni, Raina Kabaivanska, Leontyne Price, Nicolai Gedda, Marcello Giordani, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Leo Nucci, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Giorgio Tozzi. This season’s new production is by Deborah Warner and directed by Fiona Shaw, both in their company debuts, and had its premiere on September 23, 2013, the opening night of the 2013–14 season.