Eugene Onegin, Opera by P. I. Tchaikovsky
Based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the same name, Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin offers a window into the Russian soul. Confident that contemporary audiences would be familiar with the story, Tchaikovsky chose episodes from Pushkin’s work that would best allow his music to illustrate the innermost passions of the characters.
Eugene Onegin is a cautionary tale which is as pertinent today as it would have been when it was written. Onegin is a young nobleman, aloof to the feelings of others, and out of touch with his own. Introduced by his friend, Lensky, to Tatyana, he spurns her affections and makes his own advances towards Olga whom Lensky loves. Infuriated, Lensky challenges his friend to a duel, but it is Onegin who prevails, killing Lensky. Only when Onegin returns to St Petersburg, years later, and meets Tatyana again does he realise that he is in love with her. But now he must face the consequences of his earlier actions.
Tchaikovsky was not a member of the Mighty Five, a group of composers that epitomised an emergent nationalism in Russian music, yet, notwithstanding his own training in the western musical tradition, his style is clearly Russian: introspective, melancholic and deeply personal, but also possessing an undeniable gift for melody.
Eugene Onegin is a fascinating work. Tchaikovsky not only makes use of his country’s folk song but also the music that would have been played in the homes of the Russian upper classes of his time. First performed in Vienna in 1897, under the direction of Gustav Mahler, Eugene Onegin introduced to audiences a world of music that would have barely been known outside of Russia before its composition.