How Pushkin was turned into opera.
In the spring of 1877, Pyotr Tchaikovsky found himself at the home of Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya in Moscow. Yelizaveta was a mezzo-soprano much appreciated by the Russian public and a dear friend of Tchaikovsky.
The composer was at the time in search of an idea for a new opera. He was also ever more frustrated by the conventionality and artifice of European composers, especially Verdi and Wagner. He wanted to create something new, and possible further into the soul of the Russian nation. And of course, the discussion around the table soon turned to possible subjects and literary sources. Tchaikovsky writes:
– Lavrovskaya’s stupid husband, Pyotr Tsertelev, churned out indescribable rubbish and suggested the most impossible subjects…
… But then Yelizeveta proposed Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. At the time Tchaikovski did think very much of it as it turned up in the middle of Tsertelev’s inundation of nonsense. But later that evening it slowly grew in him. And by next morning, not only had he re-read the novel but also completed the outline and most of the libretto for the opera.
Premiere – March 29, 1879 Maly Theatre, Moscow, Russia.
Composer – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Librettist – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from Pushkin’s verses (Konstantin Shilovsky)
Running Time – 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Overture 3 minutes.
Act 1 – 1 hour and 10 minutes or more.
Act 2 – 42 minutes.
Act 3 – 33 minutes
Tatiana – Young noblewoman. Olga’s older sister. Lyric Soprano.
Olga – Young noblewoman. Tatiana’s younger sister. Contralto.
Larina – Their mother and the Lady of the estate. Mezzo-soprano.
Eugene Onegin – Young nobleman. Lyric Baritone.
Vladimir Lenski – Young nobleman and Onegin’s friend. Lyric Tenor.
Gremin – Prince. Bass.
Filipyevna – The old nanny. Mezzo-soprano.
The opera is based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel. As the novel is written in verse, Tchaikovsky sort of reorganized and rearranged Pushkin’s poetry rather than writing a completely new libretto. More about that here.
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Tchaikovsky’s vs Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
One big problem for Tchaikovsky was what to do with the most present character of all in the novel in verse, namely the narrator. Pushkin tells very much of the story from a third-person’s point of view. That is especially true when it comes to Onegin himself. But in an opera with arias, ensembles, and choruses, everything is first person.
There are two moments where the composer has resolved this by using texts written by the characters… When Tatiana writes her letter to Onegin in the first act, and when Lenski expresses his love for Olga before the duel in the second act. These are writings within the novel.
But for the most part, especially for Onegin, the first-person talking is produced by Tchaikovsky with Pushkin as a base. In fact, he was for a long time unconvinced by the text’s lack of flow and the distance the narrator keeps from his protagonists. That, and of course, the position Pushkin had as an icon of Russian literature. To Tchaikovsky, it was like rewriting the bible.
Another problem with cutting out the storyteller is that the irony that strikes the reader in the novel, is completely gone in the opera. Tchaikovsky tells a sad, but very honest story.
Background – The Opera Eugene Onegin is set in…
S:t Petersburg with surroundings.
The time period is the 1820s.
The first notes from the orchestra express the main theme which will accompany us throughout the opera.
Scene 1: The garden of the Larin country estate.
We see Lady Larina, Olga’s and Tatiana’s mother singing a strange quartet with her daughters and Filipyevna. More than a quartet it’s a double duet. The two girls sing an old song from inside the mansion:
– Razve ty ne slyshal? (Oh, did you hear the lovesick shepherd boy?)
The two older women talk about the past in the garden. Larina remembers her lover, Richardson, whom she very much wanted, but how she then reconciled with reason and married another.
– Habit is sent to us from above, in place of happiness.
A preface of what will follow.
The peasants from the neighborhood come to bring some of the harvests to the family. They sing and dance to a Russian folksong. (And manage to wipe away some of the gloomy beginning of the opera…)
– Uzh kak po mostu, mostochku. Po kalinovym dosochkam… (One day across the bridge came a fine young fellow…)
Olga sings an arioso where she explains how different the sisters are. Olga is a lighthearted young woman, hungry for all the pleasures life can offer. While Tatiana is melancholic and spends her time reading.
Lenski, a young poet who’s in love with Olga, arrives. With him is his neighbor and friend, the young Onegin. Tchaikovsky again lets them speak in a somewhat odd quartet. The two men talk about the women, and vice versa. You need to be focused.
– Can you really be in love with the younger one…? I would have chosen Tatiana if I were a poet like you.
On the other side Tatiana immediately confesses to her sister:
– My eyes have been opened! I know that he is the one!
But if you follow their words, the only one of the four who fails to see the magic is Onegin. He is indelicate and indifferent.
– Olga’s face is as round and rosy as the stupid moon on the dull horizon!
The two couples chit-chat. Onegin shows to be as romantic as a kitchen table, while the young poet, Lenski, unleashes overwhelming feelings in his first aria:
– Ya liubliu vas, Olga… (I love you, Olga… And nothing can quench that heart aflame with love’s virgin fire!)
They all go inside but before doing so Onegin tells Tatiana about his uncle:
– He was a man of the highest principles… May others profit from his example…
… Which again just shows how uninteresting he finds the whole situation, the family, and the girl. The dead uncle connects to Pushkin as it’s the reason why Onegin is wealthy. It’s still not what a courting young man would or should bring up.
Scene 2: Tatiana’s bedroom.
Tatiana is going to bed. She speaks with Filipyevna about love and marriage. The old woman tells her that in her youth, love wasn’t talked about. Things just happened as God commanded. She herself was married to a man she didn’t know at the age of thirteen.
But Tatiana doesn’t really listen. She’s consumed by longings for Onegin. She asks for a pen and paper and we are ready for one of the most emotional and expressive scenes in the world of opera… Tatiana’s letter scene.
She writes, hesitates, throws it away, begins again… And the long and demanding scene exposes a young woman’s exploding passion. The new and unknown feeling is so powerful that it defies any constraint and trespasses all boundaries.
– You appeared in my dreams… Your wondrous gaze filled me with longing, your voice resounded in my heart… As soon as you arrived, I recognized you…
This is the great Galina Vishnevskaya from 1982 in Paris. She is 56 years here and not in the best shape vocally. She fled the Soviet Union in 1974 and as a result, the authorities there destroyed most of her recordings which makes it difficult to find anything with her at a younger age. But she was the nr.1. Tatiana at the Bolshoi, and in the whole of Russia for many years. I think it’s still interesting to hear one of the most loved Tatiana of all time, even though she’s not perfect here.
You will hear some of Tatiana’s music and lyrics again, in the 3rd act when Onegin encounters Tatiana again, and the roles are reversed. There is a particular symmetry to the opera.
A shepherd’s pipe is heard in form of a solo oboe. It is morning. Her unsettled heart has kept her up all night. When Filipyevna enters Tatiana persuades her to send her grandson with the letter to Onegin.
Scene 3: Outside the Larin estate.
The working girls are in the fields singing while picking fruit.
Tatiana enters. She is anxiously waiting for Onegin. She regrets her impulsiveness.
– Dear God, what must he have thought?
And so Onegin arrives to give his response to her flaming desire.
– Your candor touched me deeply. And I will repay you with an equally sincere confession.
And of course, poor Tatiana knows what is coming. Onegin sings his big aria telling her, gently, that marriage is not for him.
– Kogda by zhiznʹ domashnim krugom… (…If I was to marry, I would, most likely, not choose
any other bride than you… But I was not made for wedded bliss…)
He practically gives her the “It’s not you, it’s me”-routine, and finishes off by reprimanding her not to be so outspoken:
– Learn to control your feelings… Not everyone will understand you as I do.
Incredibly patronizing. Tatiana leaves… Desolated.
Scene 1: The ballroom of the Larin house.
Sometime later there is a ball to celebrate Tatiana’s name day. It’s a traditional 1800s ball with lots of high society people of various age groups. Of course, Onegin is there with Lenski. His nonchalant and permissive attitude makes him a talked-about subject among the guests. Another such subject is his relationship with Tatiana… Something that makes him regret ever coming to the stupid party. To get back at Lenski he starts courting Olga. This makes Lenski furious.
This whole scene is accompanied by a Walz theme which sometimes is performed as a stand-alone orchestra piece.
The chorus sings, then there’s a duet between Olga and Lenski. After that, a funny little guy (Tenor) called Triquet sings a couplet in French in the honor of Tatiana:
You should observe Onegin and Olga standing together while Lenski in some way is excluded. It is all a stupid joke to Onegin, but to Lenski, it is no laughing matter.
There is a short ballet, and at the end, the two friends start quarreling. Onegin superfluous nature and lack of empathy prevent him to see the danger in the situation. And his unaffected attitude makes Lenski’s jealousy uncontrollable. In front of everybody, he exclaims:
– You’re no longer my friend! I… despise you!
Onegin tries to smooth over the dispute but he really seems more troubled by the attention they get in front of everybody. Anyway, Lenski just won’t have it, and in the end, he throws his gauntlet. Here Lenski sings a short arioso to Larina:
– V vashem dome! (In your house, as in a golden dream, my childhood years flowed gently by… But today, I have learned that life is no romantic novel, that honor and friendship are but words.)
More and more of the people around him join in and finally also the chorus.
Onegin picks up the gauntlet. The two men exchange insults, and try to engage right there, but are held back. They leave hastily.
Scene 2: The banks of the river. Dawn.
Another highlight of the opera. Lenski with his second awaits the arrival of Onegin. He sings the beautiful aria:
– Kuda, kuda… (Where have you gone, golden days of my youth?)
He sings about his love for Olga, and the fear of death. He will face his fate and there’s not much he can do about it.
Onegin arrives, and the two men sing a short duet. They sing about the past when they shared everything, and how they used to be the closest of friends. But now as they prepare to destroy each other, none of them has the strength to withdraw from what sacrifice honor and conventions demand.
Both Tchaikovsky and Pushkin believed in fate and the power of a defined path as a metric for life. The ending of the second act is very much in line with that idea… So is the ending of the opera, as we will see.
They duel. Lenski begins to take aim. Onegin fires. Lenski falls…
Between the second and third acts, five years have passed. After having killed his friend, Onegin fled S:t Peterburg. He then traveled the world, which in those days to a Russian nobleman, mostly consisted of Europe. Not having found any true meaning in life, he then returned to his home more disillusioned than ever…
Scene 1: Prince Gremin’s residence in S:t Petersburg.
The act opens with a ballet to a very famous orchestra piece… The Polonaise, showing Tchaikovsky’s talent for dance- and ballet music. After all, he is the most performed ballet composer in the world. It is yet another ball. Onegin is standing alone, lost, reflecting on his life…
– I’m without employment, wife, or occupation… I began to travel, aimlessly, and what happened? I found that travel was boring, too!
But then Onegin sees a beautiful woman on the far side of the room. He asks the host, Prince Gremin who she is…
– It’s my wife… Since two years.
And the Prince sings a beautiful aria about love that is more honest and insightful than anything we’ve heard so far. He is much older than Tatiana but loves her deeply.
– Like a ray of sunlight in a stormy sky, she brought me life and youth, yes, youth and happiness!
Gremin is a character added by Tchaikovsky. He doesn’t appear in Pushkin’s novel, and his words are all the composer’s invention.
They are introduced, and strong feelings overcome both. Both keep their cool though. Tatiana is escorted away, and Onegin is left alone, overwhelmed by this new and sudden discovery of a reason for him to live… The awakened love for Tatiana.
Now it’s he who writes a letter to Tatiana. He asks her for a meeting…
Scene 2: A room in Prince Gremin’s house.
Tatiana is waiting for Onegin. She is disturbed by his path again crossing hers. Onegin enters, rushes across the room, and falls to her feet. But she composes herself:
– Enough, get up, I must talk to you frankly.
A paraphrase of what Onegin told her in the first act. She knows that although she’s still in love with him, she cannot concede. She is married and will not break that oath.
– … You didn’t find me attractive. Why, then, do you pursue me now?
They both very much feel that passion, but Tatiana is determined not to give in:
– Why hide it, why pretend? I love you! But my fate has already been decided, and irrevocably! I am married… I beg you, leave me!
He desperately pleas her not to send him away… He begs, he implores but in vain. She leaves him.
Onegin’s last reply is in line with the conviction of his creators…
– Oh, my pitiful fate!
What to look out for.
Curtain-up – The strange double duet between the girls and the older women.
9 minutes – Chorus sings One day across the bridge…
18 minutes – Lenski and Onegin arrive.
24 minutes – Ya liubliu vas. Lenski’s first aria.
38 minutes – Tatiana’s long letter scene.
1 hour 16 minutes – Kogda by zhiznʹ domashnim krugom. Onegin’s big aria where he turns Tatiana down.
2 minutes – The Walzer.
10 minutes – Triquet sings his couplet. Check Onegin, Lenski, and Olga.
19 minutes – Lenski throws his gauntlet.
20 minutes – V vashem dome! (In your house) Lenski followed by others.
29 minutes – Kuda, kuda. Lenski’s most famous aria.
Curtain-up – Polonaise. Very famous orchestra ballet piece.
10 minutes –Liubvi vse vozrasty pokorny. Gremin’s aria.
20 minutes – The final scene begins.
Something about the voices.
Tchaikovsky wasn’t confident that a normal opera cast would be able to portray so young and innocent characters. He thought of opera singers as middle-aged, overweight, and with stereotypical gestures.
Therefore he gave the parts at the premiere to singers of the Moscow Conservatory… . This choice points to the biggest issues one could have when considering voices for Eugene Onegin. They need to be young… At least Tatyana, Olga, and Lenski. Preferably also Onegin.
Much like some of the other heroes and heroines in opera literature like Madama Butterfly, Rossina, etc, it’s a question about credibility. Tatyana’s reaction to Onegin just doesn’t make sense if she’s not very young and innocent.
Apart from that, the voices are straightforward. Olga needs some nice low notes. Gremin has to be a good, low bass, and Lenski needs a dynamic voice with good legato. He is sometimes classified as a Spinto tenor, that is, a little heavier than a Lyric. I do not agree.
Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage.
In May 1877 Tchaikovsky started writing the opera, and in June he proposed to marry the eight years younger Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova. She was a former student of his, and supposedly, much like Tatiana in the opera, she wrote a letter to him and declared her love.
They married a month later. A short time thereafter (some say, only two weeks) they separated. Although they remained married for the rest of Tchaikovsky’s life, they never lived together, had any children, or really had anything to do with each other again. One reason, of course, was that Tchaikovsky was Gay.
So why did he marry in the first place? Probably to satisfy his family and to silence rumors that were spreading about his sexuality. He said that Antonina was neither better nor worse than any other woman, which could seem like a blunt confession.
Tchaikovsky was probably reasonably satisfied with the arrangement. He got a wife, who he didn’t have to see. Antonina, on the other hand, was probably more attached to the composer. But she at least in some way accepted the arrangement. Did he bring any of his experience with marriage into the opera?
I let you be the judge of that.
Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.