Exploring the origins of Eugene Onegin and Onegin
We look at an opera and a ballet inspired by Pushkin's story.
Krassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana, Simon Keenlyside as Eugene Onegin and Peter Rose as Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
In Russia, Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin is as well known as Hamlet is in Britain and as cherished as Pride and Prejudice. It is little wonder, then, that it has inspired numerous adaptations, including Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera and John Cranko’s 1965 ballet Onegin. Outside Russia, it is these lyrical adaptations rather than Pushkin’s original that have entered our cultural consciousness.
In May 1877, Tchaikovsky was feeling bruised after the failure of Swan Lake in Moscow. Petipa and Minkus’s La Bayadère had been that year’s great balletic success, so, turning away from ballet, Tchaikovsky began to think about a new opera. The choice of Pushkin’s much-revered Eugene Onegin, suggested during a conversation with friends, was decidedly bold:
The idea seemed wild to me and I did not say anything, but later, while eating alone in a pub I remembered about Onegin and started thinking. I thought the idea […] possible, then became captivated and by the end of my meal I had decided.
Rather than a straight word-for-word adaptation, however, Tchaikovsky’s own libretto binned Onegin’s youthful exploits and focused on Tatyana Larina’s fate. For the many Russians who loved the original, the opera proved almost unrecognizable.
Not only had Tchaikovsky cut one of the most admired texts in Russian literature to ribbons, but he had also changed its tone, echoing a predominant new trend for realism. One reviewer sarcastically pondered “How can you really write music to words like these: ‘Hello, how are you?’ – ‘Very well, thank you’?” But that emotional honesty was the opera’s eventual key to success and was due to Tchaikovsky’s own experiences in matters of the heart.
Eugene Onegin was written at a decisive moment in the composer’s life. Bowing to external pressures, he married Antonina Miliukova in July 1877, ‘a woman,’ he said, ‘with whom I am not the least in love’. The marriage was Tchaikovsky’s well-meaning attempt to conceal his homosexuality, as he had explained to his gay brother Modest the previous year:
“I am now going through a very critical period of my life. I will go into more detail later, but for now I will simply tell you, I have decided to get married. It is unavoidable. I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modest, and all those I love. I think that for both of us our dispositions are the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must fight our natures to the best of our ability. So far as I am concerned, I will do my utmost to get married this year, and if I lack the necessary courage, I will at any rate abandon my habits forever.”
The marriage was disaster and, as Tchaikovsky’s fame grew, that balance between public and private life became ever more precarious. Tchaikovsky poured his insecurities into Eugene Onegin, completed shortly after his marriage collapsed. Pushkin’s story offered a perfect opportunity to explore the wrestle between desire and social convention.
The opera took a while to find favour at home, but its expressive and musical power communicated immediately in countries where audiences were less familiar with the original. Gustav Mahler was an early advocate for the opera and performed Eugene Onegin both in Hamburg and in Vienna, where he became director of the Imperial Opera House. Since its UK premiere at the Olympic Theatre in London on 17 October 1892 it has been a staple of the British repertory, providing a dramatic and musical showcase for subsequent generations of actor-singers.
Tchaikovsky’s opera had a even wider impact in 1965, when its structure – rather than Pushkin’s verse novel – became the inspiration for John Cranko’s ballet. Cranko had originally pitched the idea to the board of the Royal Opera House, though it was rejected, possibly due to their unswerving admiration for Tchaikovsky’s opera. Moving to Stuttgart, Cranko was determined to pay his homage and commissioned a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky score from Kurt-Heinze Stolze, who in turn became Cranko’s most important musical advisor.
In creating the score for Onegin, Stolze deliberately avoided any material from the opera. Instead he focussed on music from The Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s collection of piano pieces composed a couple of years before Eugene Onegin. Additionally, Stolze employs themes from the opera Cherevichki (performed as The Tsarina’s Slippers at the Royal Opera House in 2009) and, for Tatyana and Onegin’s gruelling farewell, the second half of the symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini.
Whether sung or danced, however, Tatyana Larina and Eugene Onegin’s story has an irrepressible power to move. Their tragedy may be Pushkin’s invention, but it was Tchaikovsky’s emotional honesty that gave the opera its clout. In the fatalistic tones of Swan Lake and Eugene Onegin or the fairy-tale narrative of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky continually reminds us of his negative views of love.
Providing a suitably heady soundworld for those tales, audiences now treasure his adaptations as much as the originals. Adapting Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was a particularly bold decision, but it proved decisive, producing one of the greatest operas of all time and, in turn, spurring an equally poignant full-length ballet.