Eugene Onegin, A Guide

By Indyana Schneider

This post is meant to act as a guide to OperaUpClose’s production of Eugene Onegin, and can be read and enjoyed both pre- and post-show. Please note that it does contain a few plot SPOILERS. As always, I’d love to hear your own thoughts and insights. You can email me at indyana@operaupclose.com

 

‘It seems to me that I am truly gifted with the ability truthfully, sincerely, and simply to express the feelings, moods, and images suggested by a text.’ – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

 

What can you expect?

  • You can expect fully developed, complex, and flawed characters.
  • You can expect an impressively versatile set design, which hurtles you into the 1960s setting. This setting is so interesting, as it allows for a really stark juxtaposition of the worlds of women from different generations in a time of fracturing gender norms and societal expectations. While previous-generation Evie and Larina sing: ‘Don’t dwell too much on what has been; Don’t waste time chasing after dreams’, new-generation Tatyana sings: ‘I won’t give in to this temptation, I won’t forget what I have learned, that I must live on my own terms’.
  • You can expect opera sung all the way through. While some operas are interspersed with dialogue, in Eugene Onegin, all conversing happens through music. Really. Beautiful. Music.
  • You can expect 2 acts – a 1.5-hour first act and 40-minute second act. So evening performances finish easily before 10pm.

 

Why is this a great opera for first-time opera-goers?

The world is recognisable, the story is relatable, the music is BEAUTIFUL and SO melodious and lyrical, the drama is captivating.
How many of you have written a love letter? I'm guilty...

 

The Story – A Timeline

1. Alexander Pushkin wrote the original Eugene Onegin, an early nineteenth-century novel in Russian verse. The story is told by a seemingly-worldly narrator, made up almost entirely of iambic tetrameter.

An interesting side fact (with spoilers): The duel which occurs between Lensky and Onegin wouldn’t have been at all out of place in then-Russia, as duelling was actually very popular and very formalised. It was banned in 1715 by the Emperor, who was (understandably…) tired of his army slaughtering one another again and again.

Ironically, Pushkin himself actually died in a duel. He partook in nearly 30 during his life, and eventually died from a fatal bullet to the spleen received during a duel with his brother-in-law Georges d'Anthès. Ouch.

2. Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera by the same name is probably the most familiar version of Pushkin’s original novel in verse. Like the novel, it is set in the Russian countryside, allowing the opera to present ‘real’, ‘everyday’ experiences on the stage, which contrasts heavily with the epic narratives that characterised much European opera of the time. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, Modest, ‘How glad I am to be rid of Egyption princesses, pharaohs, poisonings, and stilted effects of all kinds’.

Another opera praised for dealing with the ‘Everyday’ is Bizet’s Carmen, which Tchaikovsky happened to see in Paris in 1877. It’s believed that there, he became inspired to write an opera dealing with real human beings. And aren’t we glad he did – within a decade of its 1879 premiere, Eugene Onegin had been performed over one hundred times in St Petersburg alone!

3. Robin Norton-Hale’s new English version was completed in 2017, between press nights at the Soho Theatre, financial snapshots, office meetings, family holidays… Somehow.
It’s not the story you know and love, but one, I would say, you’ll love to know.

 

The Libretto

Interestingly, when Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin initially travelled, it did so largely in translation. In Prague, you would have found the first
non-Russian performance, conducted by Tchaikovsky and sung in Czech. When it first arrived in England in 1882, Eugene Onegin was sung in English.

While English re-writes are certainly not a new thing here, I can safely say that this is the first 1960s setting. Look out for audience-favourite lines:

  • ‘She’s like a one-hit wonder song, easy to like at first, but in a week or two will she be worth remembering?’
  • ‘I had to write – or felt I had to - how can I put it into words? I picture you with half-shrugged shoulders dismissing how you’ve changed my world.’
  • ‘My name is Zaretsky but just call me John’
  • ‘Her talents cannot be denied, she makes her teacher burst with pride wanting more than just to be a bride’

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is told by a narrator, though Tchaikovsky's is not. Perhaps you could say that his music does its own form of narrating?

 

The Music

Tchaikovsky is often referred to as an ‘empathetic composer’, one who expressed great affinity for our heroine: ‘I was completely buried in my composition and had grown so close to the character of Tatyana that she and all around her started to seem real to me’.

This certainly comes across in the musical and emotional complexity of the characters in Eugene Onegin – we really do feel for them. Taking our production as a reference point… Onegin acts horrifically – coldly rejects a love-struck teenager, publicly flirts with his best mate’s girlfriend just for kicks, KILLS said best mate – yet in the final line ‘Who will absolve me now?’ our sympathies might well go out to Onegin as the lights dim. Mine certainly do.

I’m not sure there is an exact definition for musical empathy. One way to think about it is to see how the same melodies are used by different characters. This happens a lot in Eugene Onegin, and I’ll expand on two key moments: the letter scenes and Lensky’s aria.

                The Letter Scenes

One of the most famous scenes in opera is the ‘letter scene’ from the first act. Tatyana, overcome with fevered passion, writes a letter to Onegin unleashing the force of her love. The beginning of the of the scene is already a little hot and heavy, with fast-breathing-style music. Have a listen here with the feelings of ‘exhilaration’ and ‘hesitation’ in mind. Try make-out what it is about the music that conveys these feelings. For me, there’s a certain exhilaration in the contour of the opening line (0.46)– the way the high notes kind of fizz? I kind of imagining opening a shaken-up soft drink. It's explosive! And the indecisiveness of the melodic lines within this scene - how they chop and change in tone so quickly - shows hesitation, especially in the sudden solemnness that follows the opening (2.30). But maybe that’s just for me.

When Onegin finally sings of his love to Tatyana (during her book launch in our version), he does so in music borrowed from her own letter scene (the ‘fizzy’ music I mentioned above). There’s something really beautiful about this form of musical communication, of recognising this music at the same time as we recognise Onegin’s own feelings and actions. As they are reunited, Onegin feels and emotes exactly as Tatyana did after their first meeting.

So much can be communicated simply by taking on the melody of others. Though I’m afraid it’s too little too late for Onegin. Sorry buddy.

                Lensky’s Aria

The main theme of Lensky’s aria is immediately recognisable as a contorted, more angular, more tortured version of a similar melody from Tatyana’s letter aria. The musical parallel in the two arias kind of creates an underlying kinship between Tatyana and Lensky, two wronged by Onegin. It’s interesting to consider whether both these scenes are in some way addressed to Onegin - the letter and then the soliloquy. Hmmm.

But also, are we as an audience more empathetic towards Lensky because somewhere, maybe deep down, we know we've heard this music before? Maybe! We do tend to open up more emotionally when confronted with the familiar…

A final point on this music (though there is SO much to say!):
One of the issues people take with translations is that the original musical word-painting is lost. So for instance, if in the original text someone sings about birds in the sky, suddenly the music is high in pitch and ‘soaring to new heights’ with the text. A new translation mightn’t have the semantic and musical representations coincide in the same way. So meaning is lost.

BUT that’s kind of what I find beautiful about translations like this one. Meaning isn’t lost, it’s refreshed! We can extrapolate our own, new meanings from the musical and textual representations. In the original text of Lensky’s aria, he asks: ‘What does the coming day hold for me? It escapes my eyes’ in the same bruised variant of the letter scene’s descending theme. You could read this link as Tchaikovsky answering his own question: rejection from Onegin? Your own destruction? All blossoming from Tatyana’s letter scene, of course.

Contrastingly, in our version, Lensky sings: 'Will life once more be what I dreamed of or have I willed my own destruction?' Here, we might instead figure Lensky’s own innocent naivety (like Tatyana’s). Also, as Tatyana eventually wills her own CREATION, juxtaposition can draw contraries, rather than parallels, between Lensky and Tatyana’s fates.

Bottom line: The musical meaning is deepened and refreshed and translations are actually just great.

 

Want to listen ahead of time?

Sometimes, music is even more enjoyable when you’ve heard it before. Check out these links for some of our favourite versions of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music:

1. Opening duet - watch this

2. The Letter Scene – watch this and then watch this

3. Onegin’s Aria - watch this

4. Lensky’s Aria - watch this

5. Final Scene - watch this

 

Finally, a Frequently-Asked-Question – where is Prince Gremin and his beautiful aria?

More spoilers ahead… in Tchaikovsky’s original, when Onegin returns after travelling abroad, he attends a grand party at which he is introduced to Tatyana, now the young wife of Prince Gremin. Gremin certainly does sing a beautiful aria, which you can listen to here.

However, our production transposed the story of Tatyana’s sexual awakening to the early 1960s, specifically as a world on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement. So, rather than renouncing Onegin’s love because she is trapped within a loveless marriage, our Tatyana becomes an accomplished author and rejects the man she still loves because she realises accepting him will involve a subjugation not only of her career but of her self-determination. The story is as tragic as the original, but it is a tragedy on Tatyana’s terms. The importance of this dramatic change to our plot outweighs the necessity of Gremlin’s character in this production.

And that’s the beauty of timeless compositions like Eugene Onegin, they can be done and redone – classically, innovatively, and everything in between – and audiences have this selection of interpretations to pick and choose from.

Aren’t we lucky?