Eugene Onegin

(Yevgeny Onegin) Tchaikovsky

Russian romance

The one where Tatyana takes all night to write a letter, Onegin kills his best friend and there is a lot of ballroom dancing. CAST

Tatyana, a romantic girl Olga, her sister Madame Larina, their mother and a landowner Eugene Onegin, landowner and playboy Vladimir Lensky, local squire and Olga’s intended Prince Gremin, Tatyana’s (last Act) husband Filipyevna, Larin family’s old retainer Captain Buyanov (music by courtesy of), M. Triquet (entertainer), Zaretsky (Lensky’s second and duel organizer), Guillot (Onegin’s man)
3 acts: running time 2 hrs 30 mins

Soprano Contralto Mezzo Baritone Tenor Bass Mezzo

STORY Act I Sc 1 Madame Larina’s garden in the centre of her estate
We are in Chekov country in the seventeen-nineties with cherry orchards all over the place but only two sisters not three and Pushkin wrote the story. Sisters Tatyana and Olga sing an irrelevant Russian song. Mother Larina is making marmalade with Filipyevna aged retainer; she recalls her youthful flirty days and especially a Guards subaltern but Mum and Dad said No you must marry rich Grigovich next door. A humdrum marriage ensued also the death of Grigovich. Larina is now a contented widow mother to her girls and little mother to innumerable peasants. Peasants arrive and greet little mother. They sing an even less relevant song also dance. There is some talk of harvest festivals. They bid farewell to little mother: exit. Freed from yelling capering peasants Tatyana says she is a romantic Olga says she is an outdoor girl. But hark! A jeep is approaching. Men! They are Lensky Olga’s chap plus glam new visitor Eugene Onegin at the sight of whom Tatyana instantly keels over. Onegin and Tatyana stroll offstage: Lensky and Olga take a more constricted stroll onstage. Lensky tells Olga he loves her (no news to anyone) Onegin returns telling a boring anecdote to wide-eyed Tatyana. Filipyevna says supper’s up (thinks: maybe my little chicky has met Mr Rightovich).

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Act I Sc 2 Tatyana’s bedroom
Filipyevna says time for beddy-byes Tatyana says niet tell me of your early love life. Negative says Filipyevna I was a child bride: arranged marriage. Hey Tatyana are you sick or something? I’m upset says Tatyana. I’m in love. I want to be alone. OK says Filipyevna. Exits. Tatyana confesses an acute infatuation. She sits down and starts a letter. No good: tears it up. Tries again. Reads the letter (pretty humble stuff: pity me etc.: you could disdain me etc.: please don’t etc.). Stops: thinks: maybe I’m a mug to chance a letter: gets brave and writes on (why come in and upset my life?: maybe it’s destiny or something: are you guardian angel or con man? Anyway I love you: take me or leave me). She finishes rambling but heartfelt letter: a whole night has passed (opera time). Shepherds switch on trannies outside the window the sun rises etc. Filipyevna returns: Tatyana asks that the letter be delivered to Onegin via Filipyevna’s grandson. Filipyevna (singularly thick) gets the message at last: the letter will be delivered.

Act I Sc 3 Another part of the Larin garden: Tatyana sitting on a garden bench
Peasant girls picking rhubarb sing Russian rhubarb song (in background): Tatyana waits and quakes. Onegin arrives. I got your note says he. I appreciate your sentiments but regret the role of husband and father is not compatible with my temperament. If I wed marital friction is inevitable. Brotherly love – yes OK I can offer modicum of that but let me tell you my girl don’t try this ‘I love you’ lark on anyone else lest it be not so graciously received since I am exceptionally good-natured in this respect. Tatyana quinched.

Act II Sc 1 The Larin drawing room: a country house ball in progress
What a smashing party say the guests we never thought we’d have a band from the Depot. Thanks a lot Captain Buyanov super do Dom Perignon and all. The guests watch Onegin and Tatyana dancing. A bit close they think. They gossip of marriage. If that happened Tatyana would soon be ditched by a man of the world like Onegin they say. He overhears this and fumes: why did Lensky get me into this toytown? I’ll show the bastard: I’ll make a pass at his Olga. He dances with Olga although Lensky has the date. Lensky is cross. He dances with her again. And again. Lensky very cross calls Olga a double-crossing bitch. Monsieur Triquet does his party piece: couplets for Tatyana’s birthday. Onegin and Lensky smoulder. Onegin taunts Lensky. Why are you so sulky? You are trifling with Olga’s affections when you have already destroyed Tatyana says Lensky. You stink. Whassat? says Onegin steady on old boy. I demand satisfaction says Lensky. The guests are agog: shock: horror: they attempt to interpose. M. Larina is devastated. Sorry to do this in your house Lensky says but I demand satisfaction etc. OK says Onegin I accept the challenge: it’s a duel.

Act II Sc 2 The duelling ground: a water-mill in evidence
Lensky plus second Zaretsky waits. Onegin is late. Lensky has gloomy defeatist thoughts. He looks back on his golden youth and looks forward too: will Olga weep on his grave? Onegin arrives with a servant. Where’s your second? asks pernicketty Zaretsky. My servant will act as
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second says Onegin [evidently bad form: seconds customarily gents: Ed.]. The duellists stand back to back: they both think what a funny old world: once we were great mates now we are out to kill. The duel ritual proceeds: the duel starts: Onegin shoots Lensky dead.

Act III Sc 1 Ballroom of a great house in St Petersburg some years later
The guests dance. Onegin (for it is he) broods: he is bored: I have no work: I am tired of golf: given up bridge: killed my best friend: no wife: travelling is too much sweat. Enter Prince Gremin with Tatyana on his arm. Gosh! Is it she? thinks Onegin: she’s hatched out into a stunner. Who is that man? asks Tatyana. A nutcase – Onegin – travels a lot – just back says a guest. Oh my goodness me thinks Tatyana. Who’s that lady? asks Onegin. That lady is my wife says Gremin. Wife? asks Onegin. Sure: we married about two years ago says Gremin. Let me tell you says Gremin there is nothing like a young wife to cheer an old chap up between you and me all the hangers-on round this court are a load of rubbish but – Tatyana is good: Tatyana is beautiful: Tatyana is young: Tatyana loves me. Happy happy happy me. Come and meet her. Onegin – my wife: says Gremin. We have met before says she. A long time ago says he. I must go now says she. Wonder of wonders thinks Onegin this glorious woman is the same country girl I lectured about love: now it’s coming over me: dash it: I love her!

Act III Sc 2 The drawing room of Prince Gremin’s house
Tatyana reads a letter from Onegin: she is emotionally upset: the old passion bugs her. Onegin enters: remember you gave me a hard time in the garden? she asks. I’d like to forget it says he. A loving girl of sweet seventeen was cynically brushed off – as no doubt were many others. Why pester me again? Do you want a cheap win over my noble husband Gremin? or what? Nothing like that says he straight up I love you. It could have been so easy once she says (weeps) now I’m a married woman: go! Niet niet says he I love you madly I need you I want you. So do I love you too says Tatyana but I am true to noble Gremin. Go! (He goes.) Curtain.

LOOK OUT FOR Act I Sc 1
MINUTES FROM THE START

2: 11: 14: 21: 23:

Slikhali l vi za roschei?* Uzh kak po mostu* Ya ne sposobna* Skazhi, kotoraya Tatyana?** Kak shchastliv***

The short prelude sets the mood for the opening scenes with the theme of Tatyana’s Longing. This would seem to say she is a romantic lady by nature, for it appears on the scene before Onegin. But once smitten it focuses upon her longing for him.

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Tatyana and Olga sing a pleasant song2 in duet in the near distance, on the hearing of which Madame Larina and Filipyevna stroll down memory lane. The folk song has a fetching chorus and Madame Larina gets quite agitato about her romantic past. The peasants open with a good deal of Russian rhubarb, but the set-piece dance song11 has zest and a hammering Russian rhythm: it is developed into a mighty choral piece. The second haunting melody of the opera – Olga’s song:14 she says she is just a happy hockey girl, but the music gives her the lie. She is a romantic too, or perhaps Tchaikovsky just couldn’t help being one all the time. Her number is surrounded by quite a lot of Tatyana’s Longing whenever she gets a look in. The Sizing-Up quartet:21 the gents sing to each other loudly (fortunately the girls can’t hear them) about the comparative attractions of the two sisters: Tatyana says (again inaudible to others) My Dream-boat Has Come At Last (Onegin of course). Olga, silly thing, fears gossip. An astonishing mixture but woven together with such skill as to make the overall effect one of wonder and amazement. A new love is being born. Lensky’s love song:23 at first just a happy greeting for Olga, then it drifts away in the exchanges between Tatyana and Onegin: the second time Lensky gives us the love song full blast: I LOVE YOU.

Act I Sc 2
MINUTES FROM THE START

40: Puskai pogibnu ya** 46: Nyet nikomu na syvete** 49: Kto ti?**
The unstoppable Wotan aside, this scene has probably the longest monologue (or monocant) in all opera. It is sandwiched between an opening and a closing duet with nurse Filipyevna (echoes of the Russian Dance still in her mind and lots of Longing in Tatyana’s). The solo itself is a complete, self-contained music drama. After she is left alone, the orchestra delivers a heavy message – Look Out, Fate is Round the Corner, or something like that. We first heard this theme when Tatyana told Nursey that she was all upset and we could reasonably call it Tatyana’s Fear. She nevertheless rushes into a delirious free-ranging burst of happy song40 (roughly speaking: ‘I’m in love’). Next a patch of recitatif as she takes her first shot at the letter (no good): she writes again to a new accompanying tune introduced by an expectant Ping Ping and the orchestra pretty well sticks to this as she reads aloud what she has written: she pauses, takes courage and sweeps into the third phase (Fate – indeed God – must have brought us together) to a melody that runs and rises as it goes46 and then the scene reaches its climax as she passionately begs the absent Onegin to respond warmly, to put her mind to rest, and this to a theme49 of great intensity which might have come from the Pathétique Symphony (and in fact pretty well does): she dashes off the final part of the letter to the Pathétique (which we can call Tatyana’s Passion) fortissimo in the orchestra, is too scared to read it over and finishes with a distinctly Wagnerian-sounding last thought (He’s a gent: I’m sure he’ll be decent to me). So dawn breaks (but not without qualms – Tatyana’s Fear again but not so intense) and shepherds begin piping. It has been a hard night’s work, but by operatic magic what has seemed to last for hours has occupied just less than fifteen minutes from Good Night to Good Morning.

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Act I Sc 3
MINUTES FROM THE START

66: Kogda bi zhizn domashnim*
Servant girls sing the usual kind of Russian rhubarb in the background: Tatyana, scared to death, waits for Onegin with snatches of recitatif and one frightened reminder of the Letter Scene. Onegin arrives, declaims pompously for some time and then slips into an easy superior sort of aria66 (the cad) which has two melodies, the first more tuneful, the second more patronizing. The scene works, but one can’t help thinking Tchaik muffed this one a bit.

Act II Sc 1
MINUTES FROM THE START

3: 12: 15: 20:

Vot tak syurpriz!*** À cette fête convié* Messieurs, mesdames** V vashem dome!**

The prelude opens with Tatyana’s Passion, reminding us what the poor girl suffered, and then bursts into the great rumbustious waltz3 that covers more plot in eight minutes than many operas can manage in a whole scene and with no waltz. What a party! say the guests. Jolly decent of you to bring along the band Buyanov old lad! Nice change from huntin’ sing the squires in the middle section to the flurry of horns that break out in opera at the slightest mention of chasing the fox, and huntin’ makes ’em pretty useless in bed sing the squires’ wives still in the middle section and then we swing into gossip about Tatyana/Onegin’s prospective marriage. What frightful provincial tittle tattle says Onegin. Why the hell did Lensky get me here (still in three-time)? I’ll fix the bastard. Hey Olga how about dancing with me? Negative says Lensky: she’s with me. Positive says Olga. Damned rude says Lensky. What a party! sing the guests and swing into a gusty reprise of the main waltz. It ends on a very full close. Whew! Not a dry shirt in the room. Monsieur Tricquet’s couplets,12 pretty dim in themselves, are sent up by Tchaik rather nicely. As the one joke in the opera they deserve a star. The Mazurka15 starts off in fine style but soon runs out of steam as it drifts on as a background to the start of the Onegin/Lensky quarrel (a trick Tchaik probably picked up from Verdi who used it twice with great effect). Lensky reflects on past happy times in the Larina residence: now it’s all gone sour:20 his best friend is a cad. A real whiff of nostalgia (Tchaik’s strongest suit) in Lensky’s half plaintive half angry address to M. Larina. Followed by the guests in full voice shocked by the bad behaviour of the young gentlemen plus declamatory shouts from the two would-be duellists. Unless carefully handled this finale can easily turn into mashed potatoes.

Act II Sc 2
MINUTES FROM THE START

28: Kuda, kuda, kuda*** 37: Vragi! Davno li drug*

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Lensky’s Farewell:28 we have already heard the theme of this melancholy and affecting aria but now it is fully developed and flowers into a wonderful set piece. Lensky is a romantic too. (They all are.) A strange and effective item:37 as Onegin and Lensky stand back to back waiting for the signal to start shooting they have a little ‘thinks’ (Funny that old mates like you and I should be trying to kill each other). The scene ends with a reminder of Lensky’s Farewell.

Act III Sc 1
MINUTES FROM THE START

0* 9* 11: Lyubvi vsye vozrasti pokorni*** 18: Uzhel ta samaya Tatyana?**
The opening Polonaise:0 the third great dance in the opera showing Tchaik to be a dab hand in the matter of strictly ballroom as well as ballet. And the Écossaise,9 the fourth. Fast noisy and not remotely Scottish. Gremin thinks highly of married life with Tatyana.11 Along with the letter scene this is the most memorable item in the opera. It is a full set piece with a beginning, a middle section and then the beginning again. It is one of Tchaik’s happiest inspirations, and a show-stopper. It also shows Gremin to be a much superior person to any other male in the cast. And as he takes Onegin over to introduce him we hear the Tatyana’s Fear motif from Act I, but much modified, not much fear. Onegin’s rather surprising discovery to him (and to us) that he loves Tatyana18 starts pretty ornery but then (happy inspiration) he tears into the same delirious melody that she sang about her love for him at the beginning of the Letter Scene.

Act III Sc 2
MINUTES FROM THE START

21: O! Kak mnye tyazhelo!*
The last scene21 is workmanlike and at times touching but the Tatyana/Onegin duet has none of the magic of the Letter Scene and no big new tune to sweep us off our feet. Perhaps Tchaik had none left by this time. But in its own mild way it successfully carries the piece to its pathetic end.

NOTES Eugene Onegin
First night Reception Tchaikovsky’s sixth opera Student production Malïy Theatre, Moscow, 29 March 1879 Professional first night, Bolshoi, Moscow, 23 January 1881 Respectful but not the wild enthusiasm that greeted the earlier Maid of Orleans. Some critical aggro that young Tchaik should have the gall to mess about with one of Russia’s best-loved literary masterpieces Shilovsky and Tchaikovsky Famous verse novel by Pushkin
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NEWS AND GOSSIP
When it was first suggested to Tchaikovsky that he should do an opera of Onegin he told his charmingly named brother Modest that the idea was crazy. But this didn’t stop him from sitting up all one night and blocking out a treatment. He took this to his old friend Shilovsky and the pair of them worked out the seven scenes from the novel using as much of Pushkin’s verse as they could, which in the case of the Letter Scene is nearly 100%. Tchaik composed the score in eight months in spite of emotional turmoil brought about by an astonishing debacle in his private life. A female ex-student wrote him a letter not unlike Tatyana’s. Although a true-blue gay, he responded positively: they got married and the result was immediate disaster. One would like to think that it was his passionate affection for Pushkin’s Tatyana (he wrote a lot of stuff about her) that unhinged his judgement and that it was Pushkin and not vanity that made him think he could be bisexual. Anyway he was wrong and the fact that he managed to compose this elegant and delicious score in the midst of a maelstrom says a lot for his compositional methods, which were rigid and precise. Onegin was at first seen as one of those oddball items, a ‘Russian’ opera, and so was slow to spread to European houses outside Russia. Today although it is treasured by opera buffs there is still a whiff of patronage in the attitude of some managements who think of Tchaik as a composer of tuneful ballet music and heavy stuff for the concert hall. They are of course quite wrong. He wrote ten operas, more than Bizet and the same number as Bellini and Puccini. Onegin has always been amongst the top of the pops in Russia itself.

COMMENT
Onegin is one of the most lovable of operas, mainly because of Tatyana’s music, and particularly the Letter Scene. Pushkin created in her a heroine as vulnerable as a Juliet or Ophelia, whose innocence is crushed before our very eyes, in this case by the ghastly Onegin. However he may come out in the novel, in the opera he is a most disagreeable figure, beastly to Tatyana, petulant at the ball, shoots his best friend dead and then wanders around as a clapped out playboy until the final meeting with Tatyana sparks some life into him. Yet Tchaikovsky gives him hero status musically and even when he is at his most horrible (lecturing Tatyana) he sings sweetly. This perhaps is how even an errant aristocrat was seen by Russian society and by Pushkin and in a strange way it adds to the pathos that Tatyana is destroyed by such a well-bred gentleman. The highlights in Onegin (the Scene 1 quartet, the Letter Scene, the ballroom dances, Lensky’s farewell, Gremin on marriage) are balanced out by lowlights in that the peasant songs and dances sound to our ears like the standard stuff from the steppes, much of the duel scene is pretty ornery and musically the last act is not up to the level of the first. But the design of the opera into seven self-contained scenes with no continuous narrative pretty well saves the situation. We take each one as a separate course, and if some are more nourishing than others, together they make up a satisfying meal. The best, of course, is the Letter Scene and for this alone Onegin must be an alpha.

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