Eugene Onegin: In Focus

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.

The Creators
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.

The Setting
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.

The Music
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.

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6 Responses to Eugene Onegin: In Focus

  1. Ivis Bohlen says:

    Amazed you failed to mention Renée Fleming, on your current DVD.

  2. I watched “EO” in HD today. Musically it is superb, but why couldn’t the director hire a consultant, savvy in Russian history?! A number of faux pas are extremely irritating:
    1.The dance in the Ist act is an abomination and sacriledge. a. It has nothing to do with Russian danc tradition – if any peasant girl would start rolling on the floor, show her knickers, etc. she would be considered possessed. b. ANY kind of dance during a religious procession ( God knows, where the director got the idea – it is certainly not in the novel the original libretto) would be considered a sacriledge. The original libretto describes a peasant festival of the last sheaf, signifying the end of the harvest. Icons and religious banners are totally inappropriate.
    2. Weird idea of setting the scene of Tatiana’s and Eugene’s meeting in a place filled with pumpkins is also a historic nonsense – Russian nobility with hundreds of servants wouldn’t even dream of going into a barn or a shed.
    3. I am surprised that nobody explained to the costume designer that Lensky, being a romantic poet and a fan of Byron, could never wear grey shirts and black vests, which were the garb of mechants and peasants.
    4. Duel with 22shotguns could be possible in the Wild West, but in Europe people typically used duelling pistols.
    5.Servants were never allowed to dance at the balls, and the appearance of a cook and some peasant children and dancing servants at the ball is really weird.
    6. Nobility described by Pushkin could never get into a public fight, throw a woman, even a former fiancee, on the floor, or walk around the high society ballroom with a bottle of champaigne.
    7. It looks like the director has not read the novel or did not get a decent translation or chose the settings at will, with total disregard to libretto. The first act is set outside, not in the house; Tatiana and Eugene meet in the park, and the final scene is set in the drawing room of Prince Gremin’s house. The last setting has a deep meaning: Tatiana is in her own house and, as the Russian saying goes, even the walls help her to remain strong. She should not be running away but rather she orders Onegin out.
    8. If Onegin asks Gremin:”Tell me, prince, do you happen to know
    who that is over there in the scarlet turban
    talking to the Spanish ambassador?” shouldn’t Tatiana wear a turban?

    Some of these things are small, but I happen to think that dealing with classics directors, artists, costume designers, et al. should treat the cultural heritage with respect and care.

  3. Svetlana Gladtsyna says:

    I really go along with everything the author stated here and can also add another point: I can hardly imagine Onegin chewing or eating a kind of hamburger before the duel with Lensky. Pushkin compared Eugine with a London dandy and such behavior was just unconventional for the society he lived in. All the points mentioned can be called the notorious ‘Russian kitsch’, which, unfortunately, the majority of Western (and to be fair, sometimes even new Russian) directors are unable to avoid when they attempt putting on a Russian production. Some people say that the performance lacks some gypsies ,brown bears and balalaikas to entertain the guests at the Larins’ ball to crown it all. The final scene reminded us of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, but the one who was to commit suiside was Onegin, but… it so happened that the train never came. However, the above has nothing to do with the singers, especially Anna, Mariusz, Piotr and Larissa Diadkova – nanny, Met’s choir and the orchestra led by Maestro Gergiev. – all were at their best and presented us with an unforgettable night, which we, Moscow viewers, hugely appreciate. ,

  4. Lubov Stolpinski says:

    As a whole it is magnificent. But, clothes and scenery are a little simpler, than high music and the contents.

  5. Raven says:

    I do not think Netrebko was good as Tatiana. She is good soprano, but she could not sing as young romantic Tatiana. She just put her voice down, but there is no beauty of feelings and emotions. I think Netrebko does not right for this character.

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