Eugene Onegin – Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky

Written by:
John Sullivan
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"Life is not like a novel" is one of the catch phrases of Eugene Onegin, an opera completed in 1878 by composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky and adapted collaboratively with Konstantin Shilovsky from the novel in verse by the same name written by Russia’s revered poet Alexander Pushkin. Contrary to the catch phrase, the Onegin libretto reflects significant details about the lives of its prominent authors.

Set in the Russian countryside and St. Petersburg during the 1820s, the libretto tells the story of a young and bored aristocrat, Eugene Onegin, who is introduced by his poet friend, Vladimir Lensky, to the Larin family. As Act I opens, Onegin has moved into his recently deceased uncle’s country estate and become neighbors of Madame Larina and her two fetching young daughters Olga and Tatiana, who are polar opposites. Lensky courts the older daughter Olga, who in our time would be labeled a dumb, but jubilant, blond. Tatiana is the brooding, novel-reading brunette who succumbs to the "magic poison of desire" and against her own good judgment writes Onegin a letter to tell him how much she loves him. Modeled by Pushkin as a Byronic Hero, Onegin, who presents himself as a been-there-done-that elitist, condescendingly says that her candor is sweet, but that routine would destroy any love he could muster which, in fact, would only be brotherly.

While Tchaikovsky was writing Eugene Onegin, he received a passionate love letter from an unnoticed young woman who attended one of his large lecture hall classes and who was begging to meet him. His letter, polite but a cool rebuff, further inflamed her and she threatened suicide if he wouldn’t meet her. Caught up in his own disdain for Onegin and his sympathy for Tatiana, Tchaikovsky who was 37 years old had been considering marriage for some time, hoping to achieve the comforts of a regular home life and to overcome the gossip about his veritable homosexuality. Although Tchaikovsky had explained the Platonic arrangement he desired, Antonina Milyukova did not want a brotherly kind of love. The practical marriage to Antonina lasted only a few days. The legal marriage ended when she died in a mental institution in 1917.

Act II of Onegin depicts the petulant bad boy entertaining himself by baiting his hot-blooded friend Lensky as Onegin steals Olga as his dance partner. Olga, a carefree airhead, punishes Lensky’s jealously by insisting that Onegin’s flirting is nothing and by allowing Onegin to escort her for the evening’s grand cotillion promenade. The act ends with Onegin killing Lensky in a gentleman’s duel that Onegin demeans by both showing up late and making his coachman his second.

At 27, Pushkin died two days after being wounded in a duel that involved the honor of his beautiful wife Natalia and rumors that he was a cuckold. D’Anthes, the adopted son of the rumored pedophiliac Dutch ambassador, ignored Pushkin’s challenge to settle the matter by duel and later married Natalia’s sister as a way to peacefully end the matter. However, D’Anthes continued to pursue Natalia saying his attention was now a family matter. To add insult to injury, had Pushkin survived the duel, he would have been put to death because that was the penalty in Russia for participating in a duel. Pushin’s demise verges on the fantastic and, like Tchaikovsky’s marriage, contains sexual elements that were not discussed in public in the 19th century.

In Act III of Onegin, Tchaikovsky kicks the Byronic Hero in the pants by making Onegin fall in love with Tatiana who has married his cousin Prince Gremin. Although Tatiana still harbors strong feelings for the man who spurned her, she chooses to honor the commitment to her adoring older husband, knowing Onegin may be attracted to her only because she represents an enticing conquest. Because Tatiana is the character who changes and matures, many past critics of this opera argue with good logic that this opera is her story and not Onegin’s.

The Kennedy Center of Washington, DC is presenting the Kirov Opera production of Onegin, led by artistic and musical director Valery Gergiev. New sets had to be created for this production because the originals were destroyed in a recent fire in St. Petersburg. Although the new sets are not technically complicated by any kind of devices like moving platforms or trapdoors that inspire an American audience to gasp or clap in appreciation, the sets and stage layouts add grandeur to the unfolding story. They include a birch tree forest, a ballroom with elegant chandelier, a snow covered field where the duel takes place, and a night scene on a street with two carriages that are parked outside the Gremin palace. The duel scene stands out from the rest because of its stark black and white set and costumes along with lighting effects that plays portentously with shadow.

Also unusual in this 2 1/2 hour production is that the three-act, seven-scene opera is played with only one intermission that occurs after the first scene of Act II. Since the apex of the action occurs in Act II, dramatically the single intermission makes sense, but waiting one hour and 42 minutes for an opportunity to get up and stretch tests audience endurance.

The cast sings in Russian, except for Monsieur Tiquet, the French tutor, who makes up verses in French to honor Tatiana on her name day during the ball where Onegin insults Lensky. English surtitles written by Cori Ellison, dramaturge of The New York City Opera, are notable for their excellent word choices. Because the English text is not in verse, one suspects that Ms. Ellison may have consulted Vladimir Nabokov’s touted but unrhymed English translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse as a model for the opera’s English surtitles.

The best performances were by the men who projected better than the women singers. Even s0, trying to hear the poetry of the Russian words was difficult. The most moving performance was by tenor Evgeny Akimov (Lensky) in Act II scene 2 when he sings Where have the golden days of spring gone. He knows he will die and wonders if Olga, whom he considers his spouse, will come to visit his grave. Bass Mikhail Kit (Prince Gremin) provides an inspired performance as he tells Onegin that Tatiana shines like a star in the dark night. His young wife is an antidote to the sycophants, self-important critics, and spoiled aristocrats that make up his community. This is the decline of Imperial Russia sliding eventually into a people’s revolution. Gremin makes his point about the greedy and vain community in which he lives, but gracefully turns the conversation to his grateful love for Tatiana who has renewed him.

Outstanding among the women was mezzo-soprano Olga Markova Mikhaylenko (Nanya, the devoted servant) who attends to the love-sick Tatiana and sings a tonally rich duet with Madame Larina agreeing that habit not happiness is what heaven sends to women in marriage. Lyric soprano Irina Mataeva as Tatiana delivers the most disappointing performance in the crucial Act I scene that leads to the writing of the love letter to Onegin. Ms. Mataeva, unable to project her voice to the audience, seems nothing more than a hormone-wracked teenager who rages against her nanny when the old woman cannot remember the bedtime stories the young girl wants to hear to make her forget the man who is disturbing her sleep.

Casual concert and ballet goers will recognize a portion of the music that includes waltzes, mazurkas, and a grand polonaise, all admirably played by the orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev. One odd musical technique that Tchaikovsky borrows from Mikhail Glinka is singing that is done off stage that increases in volume as the singers come from the wings. The most dramatic instance of this off-stage singing occurs in Act I when a huge group of peasants appear from the birch tree forest into Madame Larina’s garden to celebrate completion of the harvest.

Artistically rich work in words and music, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a telling social commentary on aristocratic Russia before the revolution.

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