Opera Essentials: Eugene Onegin
A guide to Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera.
4 February 2013 at 1.20pm | Comment on this article
Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky tells the story of literature-loving Tatyana who falls passionately in love with dashing and worldly Eugene Onegin. Onegin rejects her, despite having feelings for her. His subsequent actions lead to tragedy. Years later, believing that he is incapable of happiness, Onegin unexpectedly meets Tatyana again…
The story of Eugene Onegin is taken from the novel in verse of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. A singer friend of Tchaikovsky suggested that Pushkin’s story would make a fine opera. Tchaikovsky became so excited that he stayed awake all that night working out the scenario. He wrote much of his libretto himself, sometimes setting Pushkin verbatim as in Tatyana’s Letter Scene, and occasionally (as with Prince Gremin’s aria) writing his own text.
Tchaikovsky wanted Eugene Onegin to be simple and direct in style, very different to the grand operas so popular in the 1870s. He referred to the piece as ‘seven lyric scenes’ rather than as an ‘opera’, and arranged for the premiere to be performed by Moscow Conservatory students, who he felt would act more convincingly than the singers at the Bolshoi Theatre. The premiere was admired, and by 1884 Eugene Onegin had become a staple of the Russian repertory, and the favourite opera of Tsar Alexander III.
Tchaikovsky demonstrates sympathy for all four principal characters in Eugene Onegin, particularly the complex Tatyana and Onegin. Onegin begins as an elegant dandy; his increasingly passionate music in the later scenes reveals his growing understanding both of his past mistakes and of his love for Tatyana. Tatyana evolves from the ardent girl of the Letter Scene to a woman still very much in love, but more restrained, aware that she cannot remake the past.
Kasper Holten’s production focuses on the power of memory – how it shapes us and how we gain self-knowledge through experience. The stage becomes increasingly full of objects symbolic for Tatyana and Onegin as time passes and they and finally realize that they can never return to their past lives.
Eugene Onegin runs from 4 – 20 February 2013. Tickets have now sold out, but day tickets and returns may still be available. The production is generously supported by the Monument Trust with additional philanthropic support from Sir Simon and Lady Robertson, David Hancock and The Artists’ Circle. The Production Director is generously supported by Hamish and Sophie Forsyth.