“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” —Father Zossima, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”
Is there an opera that better conveys the mood of late autumn—with the inevitability of winter’s desolation on the doorstep—than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin? Based on the “novel in verse” by Alexander Pushkin, Tchaikovsky’s rendition is a series of “lyrical scenes,” only omitting some minor connecting dots in the plot line.
Onegin tells the tale of two Romantics, the angst-ridden country girl, Tatyana, and the bored, eponymous urban dandy, who is too stupid to know a good thing when he finds it. From the opening scene of the opera, with its wistful music and longing utterances of two Russian sisters (“Have you not heard, from beyond the grove at night, the voice that sings of love and sings of sorrow?”), the opera goer knows where the story is headed—though this hardly lessens his enjoyment of the wonderful music and the mournful drama that follows.
Onegin accompanies his friend, Nikolai Lensky, on a visit to the country estate of Madame Larin and her two daughters. Lensky is engaged to the flighty Olga; Tatyana immediately is attracted to the mercurial Onegin. Soon after their first meeting, and tormented by her desire for him, she writes a love letter, a scene that has become the most famous excerpt from the opera. As she writes, Tatyana gives voice to the struggle within her soul:
Why, oh why did you visit us?
Buried in this remote countryside,
I should never have known you,
nor should I have known this torment.
The turbulence of a youthful heart,
calmed by time, who knows? –
most likely I would have found another,
have proved a faithful wife
and virtuous mother.
Another! No, not to any other in the world
would I have given my heart!
It is decreed on high,
It is the will of heaven: I am yours!
My whole life has been a pledge
of this inevitable encounter;
I know this: God sent you to me,
you are my keeper till the grave!
Tatyana sends the note to Onegin, who rejects her: “Believe me, I give you my word, marriage would be a torment for us. No matter how much I loved you, habit would kill that love.” It is the classic statement of the Romantic; Onegin at least realizes that he is unable to confine himself to the routine of domestic life with a single woman, seemingly spareing Tatyana further torment. But the plot thickens when Lensky invites Onegin to a party at the Larins’ estate, where Onegin becomes the subject of gossip among the partygoers. Blaming Lensky for inviting him to the party in the first place, Onegin flirts with Olga in retaliation. As a consequence, Lensky challenges his friend to a duel the following day, and Onegin kills his friend in the combat.
Years pass, and Onegin still cannot find a cure for his ennui. Attending a ball in St. Petersburg as the mansion of a nobleman, he laments:
I’m bored here too.
The brilliance and bustle of society
cannot dispel my constant
Having killed my best friend in a duel,
having no aim, no work,
I have reached the age of twenty-six
wearied by the idleness of leisure;
without employment, wife or occupation,
I’ve found nothing to which I could devote myself!
Tatyana, now a dignified young woman, is at the ball with her husband, Prince Gremin, who adores her as a “shining star” in “the night’s darkest hour.” Onegin quickly realizes his mistake in rejecting Tatyana years before and pulls her aside to profess his love for her. Though her feelings for him are at once rekindled, Tatyana protests “You cannot bring back the past! I am another’s now, my fate is already decided, I shall always be true to him.” The opera ends with Onegin bemoaning his cruel fate.
Tchaikovsky’s gift as a supreme melodist is less on display here than it is in his better-known orchestral works (certainly The Nutcracker), though the recurring, central “love theme” of Onegin is heart-melting, and the waltz played at the Larins’ party ranks among the composer’s greatest dances (both can be heard here). Too, the Polonaise played at the St. Petersburg ball is a dance that easily could have graced one of the composer’s great ballets. A recent production of Eugene Onegin by the Houston Grand Opera beautifully captured the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, using as a visual theme the orange hues of fallen leaves that framed the otherwise sparsely-filled stage in every scene. With solid singing, good acting, and fine orchestral playing, this was a performance that was faithful to Tchaikovsky’s vision and one that beautifully incarnated the sadness of this classic Russian story.
The story behind the story: Eugene Onegin, the opera, is based on an Alexander Pushkin novel
Russians know Eugene Onegin the way Americans know Huckleberry Finn. Just as Huck exists on the page and on the stage and screen, so does Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin, debuted in Moscow in 1879 to an audience likely already familiar with the story from the Alexander Pushkin novel.
Eugene Onegin is a novel written in verse; it reads more like a poem than a novel. Almost the entire work is comprised of 14-line stanzas – nearly 400 of them! – of iambic tetrameter with the unusual rhyme scheme AB-AB-CC-DD-EFF-EGG. This form has come to be known as the “Onegin stanza” or “Pushkin sonnet.”
Onegin is considered a classic of Russian literature. “On its publication in 1831, the Onegin poem quickly acquired iconic status, and Pushkin became revered as the first authentically great Russian writer,” wrote Andrew Clements in The Guardian in 2006. “Distilling a libretto from such a familiar work was not an easy task.”
Tchaikovsky’s libretto closely follows Pushkin’s novel and retains much of its poetry. He wrote that, when he had the idea to turn it into an opera, he read the poem “over again with rapture and passed a sleepless night, of which the result was a charming plot with words from Pushkin.”
Onegin deals with unrequited love and class differences. (There’s a death, too – so it’s doubly tragic.)
The main characters, the aristocratic Onegin and the common, bookish Tatyana, meet when she’s young and naïve. He rejects her, but when they encounter each other years later, the tables have turned.
And, literature plays a role in the plot. Tatyana, the ingenue, is reading a romance novel when we first see her. In a moment that foreshadows the tragic ending, her mother warns her real life is not a fairy tale.
While the opera is based on a work of fiction, we can’t ignore what was going on in Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he was composing it. He was extricating himself from a brief, bad and ill-considered marriage – meant to hide his homosexuality.
In both the play and the opera, Onegin spends five years adrift, disillusioned with life. One evening, he’s at a black-tie gala. A princess arrives, and Onegin realizes it’s Tatyana. She has settled for a conventional marriage with a man she respects and honors but doesn’t love as she loves Onegin. And Onegin is forced to recognize he has only himself to blame.