Eugene Onegin, a young Russian nobleman (baritone—a middle-range male voice) Tatiana, a wealthy young woman from the country (soprano—the highest female voice) Olga, her sister (mezzo-soprano—a middle-range female voice) Madame Larina, their mother (mezzo-soprano) Filippyevna, Larina’s servant and Tatiana’s nanny (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Lensky, a poet, Onegin’s good friend, and Olga’s fiancé (tenor—the highest male voice) Prince Gremin (bass—the lowest male voice)
So, What’s Going On?
Outside of the opera house,
lives a whole other life as one of the most celebrated pieces of Russian literature Eugene Onegin of all time. Written over a span of eight years by the eminent national author Alexander Pushkin, the unusual novel-in-rhyming-verse is equal parts satirical social commentary and pure, unadulterated nostalgia. Its central tragic love story (boy meets girl, boy snubs girl only to discover, too late, he actually loves her) is about as good as dramatic irony gets, and its heroine, Tatiana, is viewed by many as the ultimate moral ideal—a perfect example of grace and dignity under pressure. Act 1
The Russian countryside: Larin Estate, early 1800s.
Meet the Larin sisters. These two ladies couldn’t be more different—Tatiana (tah-tee-YA-nah) is dreamy and loves to read, Olga (OHL-gah) is feisty and likes to dance…you get the idea—but neither of them can resist a good song. Together with their mother, Madame Larina (lah-REE-nah), they celebrate the fall season along with a chorus of servants preparing for harvest.
Enter Eugene Onegin and his friend, a poet named Vladimir Lensky (LEHN-ski). At just under 20 years old, former city dweller Onegin is the new owner of a nearby estate (thanks to an inheritance). But Onegin is bored. With
everything. Books, parties, polite society…nothing seems to please him. Least of all, women. Still, he agrees to visit the Larin sisters with Lensky, who’s happily engaged to Olga.
Onegin does Lensky the favor of entertaining Tatiana while the lovebirds flirt among the Larin woods. And while Onegin thinks Tatiana is somewhat interesting, he doesn’t find her captivating enough to give up his bachelor ways.
But here comes the first twist: After just one conversation, Tatiana is instantly and permanently smitten with the cynical and distant Onegin. (Yup, you read that right.)
A short time later, a sleepless Tatiana impulsively decides to write an impassioned letter to Onegin, pouring out her heart on paper and confessing her undying love, claiming her future is now in his hands.
Take a listen…
Tatiana completes her letter to Onegin and considers her fate. Listen for the repeated melody that descends the musical scale and pay attention to how it transforms over the course of the scene. Also, listen to how Tatiana’s voice rises to impressive heights when she’s feeling hopeful and sinks down low when she sings about Onegin’s possible rejection.
Tatiana asks her nanny, Filippyevna (fee-LEEP-nyehv-nah), to help her deliver the letter to Onegin and, for days, waits anxiously for his reply.
When he finally does respond, things don’t go well.
Deciding to break the news to her face to face, Onegin returns to Tatiana’s estate and does his best to let her down gently. But his “It’s not you, it’s me” approach falls short when he implies that, though he’s attracted to her, he’d soon grow tired of her. Arrogantly dismissing her love as youthful folly, he cautions her to control her emotions. (Yeah, it’s pretty brutal.)
Take a listen…
Onegin tells Tatiana he’s not the man for her. Check out how the lightly swirling wind instruments (think flute and clarinet) and Onegin’s balanced phrases (with very few high or low extremes) are used to signify how smooth and callous he is in contrast to Tatiana’s earlier anguish.
A few months later, Onegin unwisely lets Lensky drag him to a dance in honor of Tatiana’s name day (a Russian Orthodox tradition that’s sort of like a birthday party). Onegin equally unwisely asks Tatiana to dance, and as soon as they’re spotted together, gossipy whispers are heard among the crowd.
Take a listen…
Country high society gathers at the Larin Estate for a ball. During this catchy waltz, listen for the way the chorus sings its own melodies instead of following the main dance tune. This helps achieve the effect that the party guests are gossiping under their breath while live music plays in front of them.
As the guests wonder aloud if the conceited Onegin is good enough for Tatiana, Onegin decides he’s had it. Annoyed at Lensky for bringing him in the first place, Onegin resolves to flirt shamelessly with Olga for revenge.
Olga and Onegin get a bit too close during the next few waltzes, and Lensky is frustrated and confused. He demands Olga save the next dance for him, but she announces she plans to dance with Onegin one more time to punish Lensky for being overly jealous.
The flirting between Olga and Onegin continues during a French poet’s performance of a song for Tatiana, and Lensky is beside himself. In front of the entire ballroom, he denounces Onegin as an evil seducer of women and challenges him to a duel (…yikes). Realizing he’s gone too far but still wanting to save face, Onegin accepts.
Take a listen…
Lensky recalls happier times with Olga while contemplating what the duel holds in store. Listen for the brief interlude where the music suddenly sounds more hopeful and calm. Paradoxically, this is when Lensky considers what the world would be like without him. Why do you think the composer chose to have such peaceful music accompany such grim lyrics?
Just before dawn, the two men meet in the snowy countryside. After briefly recollecting how close they once were and how angry and bitter they’ve become, they take aim and fire… and Lensky falls to the ground dead.
Moscow: some years later.
Onegin, haunted by the memory of Lensky, has tried to bury his sorrows in travel. Wandering aimlessly, he’s arrived in Moscow hoping for some distraction (good luck with that, buddy).
At a ball in the city—much more upscale than the country dance at the Larin Estate—he runs into Prince Gremin (GREH-min), a relative of Onegin’s who’s recently been married to…wait for it…Tatiana. Onegin is shocked to discover Tatiana isn’t at all like he remembers; where she once seemed simple and naive, she now appears regal and mature. Even more strange? She barely seems to remember him.
And here’s the second twist: Onegin finds this newer, more self-possessed Tatiana irresistible. That’s right, now that
she’s avoiding him, he’s fallen hard…and he’s completely aware of the cruel irony.
Determined to take one final stab at happiness, Onegin decides to write Tatiana his own letter in the hopes of winning her back.
But will his words be enough to undo the damage he’s done? Can Tatiana forget what’s passed and run away with him? Will first love triumph over honor?
Good to Know
Picture this: A well-meaning but slightly misguided young woman writes a love letter to a successful man. He’s flattered, but rejects her. Later, though, he recognizes his actions toward the young woman were less than kind, and, in an effort to make amends, asks the young woman to spend her life with him.
If you’re thinking this is a replay of the opera summary you’ve just read, you’re wrong. (But nice try.) It’s actually the story of what was going on behind the scenes when the opera was composed.
When a singer friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (cheye-KOFF-skee, 1840–1893) suggested the composer write an opera based on
Eugene Onegin, the iconic Russian novel by Alexander Pushkin (POOSH-kin, 1799–1837), Tchaikovsky thought it was a “curious” but risky idea. Yet once he read the book, he found himself inexplicably drawn to Pushkin’s innocent heroine and the novel’s straightforward themes of young life and love—so much so, that he decided to get composing right away. This was perhaps in part because, only weeks before, Tchaikovsky had himself received a love letter much like the one Tatiana writes to Onegin in the story. And, like Onegin, Tchaikovsky had chosen to distance himself from his young admirer, Antonina.
But (also kind of like Onegin) Tchaikovsky changed his mind. His courtship with Antonina was complicated and tumultuous, and yet—perhaps inspired by his deep respect for Tatiana’s character—Tchaikovsky eventually proposed marriage. The date of Tchaikovsky’s proposal and the composition of Tatiana’s famous “Letter Scene” came within days of each other. Antonina accepted. The marriage didn’t last long, but the opera remains a success to this day.
Learning to Listen
Going to the opera means you’ll have to start listening in a new way if you want to take in everything the music and the voices have to offer. And guess what? This is less difficult than it sounds.
Try thinking of opera singing as its own type of language or speech. When we’re speaking, our emotions can change the way our voices sound from moment to moment—and one word can have a thousand different meanings depending on
how we say it (loudly, softly, quickly, slowly, with a high- or low-pitched voice, etc.). The same is true for the characters in an opera. Each voice you’ll hear will have its own special flavor depending on who the character is and what he or she is saying.
Tatiana, for example, is a shy young woman with a very romantic streak. Her voice, therefore, will be on the higher side (to provide a clue that she’s innocent and wistful) but will occasionally soar above the orchestra (to represent her passionate hopes and dreams). Her singing will also sound weightier and more dramatic when we meet her as a mature woman in Act 3.
Onegin, on the other hand, is a brooding young aristocrat with a serious attitude problem. His darker baritone voice (a departure from the typical heroic sound that’s usually represented by the higher-voiced tenor) indicates he’s a bit more confident and experienced than the standard romantic lead. His short, elegant phrases also tend to suggest his character is mostly calm and in control.
When in doubt about how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking, always pay close attention to exactly how they
sound. (The instruments in the orchestra will give you hints as well.)
Check This Out…
In this production of
Eugene Onegin, the title character is often seen alone on stage. What clues, if any, do you think this device gives you about his character? Does it force you to look at him in a new way? Do you believe Onegin is a different man in private than in public? Both Pushkin’s story and Tchaikovsky’s opera pay special attention to the contrast between rural and urban lifestyles. How do the sets and costumes in this production help remind you which scenes take place in the country and which take place in the city? And does the music take on a different quality once the action moves to Moscow? (Hint: Listen for the lively waltz music in Act 2 versus the more syncopated dance—known as a polonaise (pohl-oh-NAISE)—in Act 3.)
The director of this
Eugene Onegin opted to have the end of Act 2 feed directly into the beginning of Act 3. What effect, if any, do you think this has on the audience? Does the upbeat, frenzied music at the start of Act 3 help you forget Lensky’s death in Act 2? Or does it make the aftermath of his murder feel that much worse? Onegin’s pompous and restrained singing style goes completely out the window the moment he realizes he’s in love with Tatiana. Does his aria at the end of Act 3’s ballroom scene recall the scene in which Tatiana writes her infamous love letter? How so?
Think About This…
Tchaikovsky excelled at hummable melodies (if you don’t believe us, just think about
The Nutcracker or Swan Lake for a second), and, in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, memorable tunes often made several returns throughout an opera. Can you identify any recurring musical themes in Eugene Onegin? If so, why do think they repeat themselves when they do? Does their recurrence cause you to remember a specific character or event? (Hint: Listen closely to Tatiana’s “Letter Scene” in Act 1 and Lensky’s solo aria in Act 2; melodies from both of these pieces will show up more than once.) Throughout the novel of
Eugene Onegin, Pushkin made no secret of the fact he loved and admired his heroine, Tatiana. Tchaikovsky likewise found himself “in love with her image” (as in, moved by her plight) and ended up honoring her with a near-20-minute solo in his opera. Why do you think Tatiana inspires so much affection? Do you agree with her choices at the start of the opera? What about at the end? Lensky’s aria in Act 2 has been regarded as one of the opera’s most crucial moments since the piece debuted in 1879. Beyond the melancholy musical themes that cascade downward (as if the singer were sighing), the aria—and the Pushkin verse that inspired it—also tackles the age-old subjects of fleeting youth, impending death, and what happens when a person dies. Do the lyrics of this aria remind you of any other literary or musical works?
Bring the Letter Back
Letters clearly play a major role in
Eugene Onegin just as they did in Tchaikovsky’s real life (in addition to his correspondence with his fiancée, Tchaikovsky struck up a literary relationship with a woman who would become his long-time friend and patron, but who would refuse to meet him in person). In the opera, Tatiana and Onegin each serve as both writer and receiver of a painfully honest letter—and the results are entirely mixed. And with good reason. A long-form letter acts as a window into another person’s emotions and can leave both writer and reader feeling exposed.
But that’s not always a bad thing.
In the age of texting and Twitter, it’s become less and less common to express yourself using more than a few characters, words, or sentences. Why not try and break that 280-character barrier and explore writing about your feelings over several paragraphs…or even pages?
Pick a current topic, news story, or cause you’re passionate about and construct a long letter (we’re talking over 500 words) about why it moves you or why it holds your interest. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and expose your innermost thoughts on the matter. Dive into the subject and look at it from as many angles as possible. Try and put down on paper exactly how it makes you feel and why. (Extra points if you write it out by hand instead of type it.)
If you’re comfortable, share your letter with friends and family, or take things a step further and send it to a local legislator or journalist who you think might be willing to hear your opinion on an important issue.
Teacher & Parent Guide
Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of opera but, just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing.
Outside of the opera house,
lives a whole other life as one of the most celebrated pieces of Russian literature Eugene Onegin of all time. Written over a span of eight years by the eminent national author Alexander Pushkin, the unusual novel-in-rhyming-verse is equal parts satirical social commentary and pure, unadulterated nostalgia. Its central tragic love story (boy meets girl, boy snubs girl only to discover, too late, he actually loves her) is about as good as dramatic irony gets, and its heroine, Tatiana, is viewed by many as the ultimate moral ideal—a perfect example of grace and dignity under pressure.
It’s no wonder then, that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (cheye-KOFF-skee)—then a reasonably successful composer but only a moderately successful
operatic composer—was almost instantly enchanted by Eugene Onegin. Indeed, he was so enthusiastic about the story that, legend has it, he began an outline for the opera almost the very minute he finished reading the book. He wrote to his brother Modeste on the subject, saying:
“I am under the spell of [Pushkin’s] verse, and I am drawn to compose the music as it were by some irresistible attraction. I am lost in the composition of the opera.”
Tchaikovsky’s music and Pushkin’s story turned out to be a match made in opera heaven (and it wouldn’t be the only time Tchaikovsky used Pushkin as inspiration—see
The Queen of Spades, for example). Dubbed a set of “lyric scenes in three acts,” Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin gives audiences a glimpse into the most riveting moments of Pushkin’s sprawling drama, while occasionally softening the characters to make them more sympathetic. The composer’s facility with folk tunes helped him paint a vivid picture of country life, and his gift for soaring melody lent itself perfectly to Onegin’s more intimate scenes such as Tatiana’s now famous letter aria and Lensky’s heartbreaking lament. Add these elements together and you’re left with a romantic opera with a nationalistic flare that has international appeal. Eugene Onegin remains a beloved fixture in opera houses across the globe.
Some recordings and resources you may want to check out:
Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nuccia Focile, and Neil Shicoff, conducted by Semyon Bychkov
Eugene Onegin with Thomas Hampson, Karita Mattila, and Piotr Beczala, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek
Eugene Onegin with Bernd Weikl, Teresa Kubiak, and Stuart Burrows, conducted by Sir Georg Solti
The original novel. Widely considered one of the greatest pieces of literature Russia has ever produced, Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin draws on the likes of Byron and Shakespeare, resulting in a rhyming epic poem that explores art, love, social class, and authentic feeling in the early nineteenth-century Russian hinterlands.
Tchaikovsky’s . Captured at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, this video features Valery Gergiev (conductor) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin) in a critically-acclaimed production that also stars soprano Renée Fleming and tenor Ramón Vargas. Eugene Onegin, 2007
You’re ready for Tchaikovsky’s