This opera, by Russias greatest composer, the writer of the famous "Pathétique" symphony, has been staged several times in recent years, and may yet have a larger place in the repertoire. The libretto, based on a story in verse by Pushkin, is unfortunately disconnected and lacking in incident.
Mme. Larina, a landed proprietress and the mother of Tatiana and Olga, is visited at her country estate by Lenski, a neighbouring proprietor, who is engaged to Olga. He brings with him his friend Eugene Onegin. Tatiana, an ingenuous-minded girl of romantic disposition, sees in Eugene the hero of her girlish dreams and falls in love with him. In a letter to Eugene she confesses her love, and appoints a meeting. Eugene, a disappointed, misanthropic person, keeps the appointment, but returns the girls letter and advises her to restrain her feelings. Then (with the second Act) comes Tatianas birthday and a dance given in its honour by Mme. Larina. Eugene Onegin is present, and capriciously aggravates his friend Lenski by his attentions to the latters fiancée, Olga, a heartless flirt. Maddened jealousy leads to a duel, and Onegin shoots Lenski. Some years elapse. Then Tatiana is found at St. Petersburg by Onegin as the wife of Prince Gremin. He now falls deeply in love with her, and in a trying scene pleads with her to fly with him. Tatiana, although admitting her love for him, declines, and makes her escape; whereupon Onegin ends his existence.
The usual overture is replaced by a prelude framed on the Tatiana motive, though the composer has throughout the opera made a more sparing use of "leading themes" than he had done in his earlier "Vakoula the Blacksmith." There are many interesting features in the score, including the wonderfully exquisite duet for Tatiana and Olga, and the lovely scene in Tatianas bedroom, both in the first Act; the quaint, old-fashioned waltz and the arrestingly original mazurka in the second Act; the brilliant polonaise, the dainty waltz, and the grandiose finale in the third Act. The character of Tatiana greatly appealed to Tchaikovsky, and his letters show that he took much interest in the work. It is not, however, until the last Act, in the impassioned scene between Onegin and Tatiana, that he would seem to have been stirred to write real dramatic music. The chorus of peasants and their dances in the first scene are typically Russian, and the whole of the ballroom music is captivating.
"Eugene Onegin," finished in February 1878, was first performed in March 1879, by the students of the Moscow Conservatoire. "Never was any opera rehearsed with such zeal," we are told. Tchaikovsky had been away from Moscow and only put in an appearance at the last rehearsal, when the theatre was in darkness except for a few candles in the orchestra. In the scene in which Tatiana writes her love-letter to Onegin, he was deeply affected. "How lucky it is dark," he said, "for this touches me so that I can hardly restrain my tears." There was an unprecedented rush at the performance, but the music was of too high an order to be appreciated at a first hearing. Even the St. Petersburg critics spoke coldly of the work, and not until five years later was it heard in that town. Time, however, increased its popularity, and when the piano score was published it had an immense sale. After having been played in several Continental cities, it was first performed in England at the Olympic Theatre, London, in October 1892. Tchaikovsky thought highly of the opera, but did not consider it suitable for a large theatre. He wrote eleven operas altogether, but only "Eugene Onegin" is known, or likely to be known, in this country.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (whose surname is sometimes spelt as as Tschaikowsky) was born in Russia in 1840, and died (of cholera) at St. Petersburg in 1893. He studied law; entered the Government service; became a pupil of the Petersburg Conservatoire; and in 1866 teacher of harmony there, a post which he held till 1877. After that, he devoted his whole attention to composition, latterly with a pension from the Czar. There was a good deal of romantic mystery about his life and career, particularly about his marriage. The honorary degree of Doctor of Music was conferred on him by Cambridge University in 1893.