Major Operas | Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | High Romantic
Tchaikovsky began Eugene Onegin by writing the famous ‘letter scene’ from Act I, in which the heroine Tat’yana spends the night writing to Onegin, telling him of her love for him. Letter scenes first became a popular device in seventeenth-century opera, but they have been monopolized by this one, which has been called the most moving of them all.
As before, Tchaikovsky went to Pushkin for his story and Onegin was based on his verse novel, dating from 1830. The first, amateur, performance of Eugene Onegin took place at the Maly Theatre in Moscow on 29 March 1879. The first professional performance followed at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow on 23 January 1881. The opera was not universally welcomed by those nationalist composers who believed that promoting Russian values and culture was the most important point of Russian art. Tchaikovsky, however, had proceeded from a more eclectic premise; he intended to produce an intimate opera with the main attention on the characters and their situation.
Seated in the garden of her country estate, Madame Larina listens to her daughters, Tat’yana and Olga, and reflects on the time before her marriage when she loved a cavalry officer. The estate’s serfs return from the fields and celebrate the harvest. The two sisters are very different. Tat’yana reads and dreams, which concerns Larina, while Olga would rather spend the day dancing. The serfs leave and Filipp’yevna, the girls’ nurse, announces the arrival of Lensky, a poet who has been courting Olga. Lensky enters with Onegin, who has just inherited a nearby estate. Tat’yana at once sees the man of whom she has been dreaming. Onegin and Tat’yana leave together, while Lensky passionately declares his love for Olga. Tat’yana is unable to sleep. She asks Filipp’yevna about her own marriage but, preoccupied, she barely hears her story. At last she bursts out that she is in love. She sends Filipp’yevna away and starts to write a love-letter to Onegin, pouring out her feelings and saying that her life is bound to him for ever. She longs for him to save her. All she needs is one word. It is now morning and Tat’yana asks Filipp’yevna to send the letter to Onegin.
Tat’yana is terrified that she has gone too far. When Onegin arrives he gently warns her against such impetuous behaviour. She has also chosen the wrong man, since he is not one to show affection and certainly not to marry. He will always love her as a brother, but no more.
The dance to celebrate Tat’yana’s nameday is in full swing. The guests gossip about Onegin’s reputation as a gambler and a drunk. Soon he is bored and flirts...
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