Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Event: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
Date: April 22, 2017, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 38 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Eugene Oneginper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Eugene Oneginper student • $11.00 online


Act I

Russia, 19th century. Autumn in the country. On the Larin estate. Madame Larina reflects upon the days before she married, when she was courted by her husband but loved another. She is now a widow with two daughters: Tatiana and Olga. While Tatiana spends her time reading novels, with whose heroines she closely identifies, Olga is being courted by their neighbor, the poet Lenski. He arrives unexpectedly, bringing with him a new visitor, Eugene Onegin, with whom Tatiana falls in love.

Tatiana asks her nurse Filippyevna to tell her of her first love and marriage. Tatiana stays up all night writing a passionate letter to Onegin and persuades Filippyevna to have her grandson deliver it in the morning.

Tatiana waits for Onegin’s response in the garden. He admits that he was touched by her declaration but explains that he cannot accept it and can only offer her friendship. He advises her to control her emotions, lest another man take advantage of her innocence.

Act II

January. The local community has been invited to the Larin estate to celebrate Tatiana’s name day. Onegin has reluctantly agreed to accompany Lenski to what he mistakenly believes will be an intimate family celebration. Annoyed to find himself trapped at an enormous party and bored by the occasion, Onegin takes his revenge on Lenski by flirting and dancing with Olga. Lenski’s jealousy is aroused to such a height that he challenges Onegin to a duel. The party breaks up.

Before the duel, Lenski meditates upon his poetry, upon his love for Olga, and upon death. Lenski’s second finds Onegin’s late arrival and his choice of a second insulting. Although both Lenski and Onegin are full of remorse, neither stops the duel. Lenski is killed.


St. Petersburg. Having travelled abroad for several years since the duel, Onegin has returned to the capital. At a ball, Prince Gremin introduces his young wife. Onegin is astonished to recognize her as Tatiana and to realize that he is in love with her. 
Onegin has sent a letter to Tatiana. He arrives at the Gremin palace and begs her to run away with him. Tatiana admits that she still loves him, but that she has made her decision and will not leave her husband. Onegin is left desperate. —Reprinted courtesy of English National Opera

Notes by Zeke Hecker

“It has long been an established fact that I have no dramatic vein, and now I do not trouble about it … I composed this opera because I was moved to express in music all that seems to cry out for such expression in Eugene Onegin. (Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, 1878)

“And why should I be forbidden to consider that Chaykovski’s hideous and insulting libretto is not saved by a music whose cloying banalities have pursued me ever since I was a curly-haired boy in a velvet box?” (Vladimir Nabokov, 1966)

Alexander Pushkin was Russia’s greatest author, her Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens all rolled into one. Eugene Onegin, a novel in 389 14-line stanzas of intricately rhymed iambic tetrameter, is his greatest work. The libretti to almost all the canonical Russian operas are based on Pushkin. But Tchaikovsky’s setting of Onegin presents a peculiar problem. Pushkin’s novel is an unsentimental, even satirical portrayal of the provincial Russian middle classes. Its tone — variously brittle, whimsical, and analytical — is above all anti-Romantic. (Nabokov’s “literal” translation is tough going; more engaging is Charles Johnston’s, available in a Penguin paperback.) The opera, without altering the central plot, does a one-eighty. It takes the characters seriously. We are drawn in, not kept at a distance. Tatiana is not merely a silly girl who grows into a complacent trophy wife, nor is Onegin merely a bored cynic, an empty shell. The music, as we’d expect, is passionate and lyrical. It’s the composer’s finest opera score, beautiful from beginning to end, but the summit comes early: Tatiana’s “letter scene,” a fifteen-minute tour de force in which the character moves through a whole universe of emotions. Other highlights include arias for two secondary characters, Lenski and Gremin, and the ballroom dances in Tchaikovsky’s exuberant balletic manner.

Is Nabokov right? Is this opera a travesty, a betrayal of its source? Or should we see (and hear) it as an independent work, worthy in its own right? Given our postmodern sensibility, perhaps we might even consider it a “deconstruction” of Pushkin.

Because of its intimacy, delicacy, and realism, Tchaikovsky wanted to avoid a conventionally “operatic” premiere production of Onegin, so he entrusted it to students at the Moscow Conservatory. The opera took a long time to establish itself in the Western standard repertory, and even today it tends to hide shyly in the wings while Il Trovatore bellows or Siegfried roars. But since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with Russian musicians to whom its style comes naturally now free to roam the world, it has become more familiar to Western audiences. As it should be.