Piotr Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin (1879)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

This is for Nick the Opera Scribe.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (65 minutes)

Scene 1: Garden of the Larina estate, Russian countryside, 1820s or 1830s.

2: The prelude is the apotheosis of a single theme, that of Tatiana’s longing. In this way we are introduced to her even before we ever actually see her. The curtain goes up and we are entertained with a soprano-contralto duet, a folk song * for Tatiana and her sister Olga. Their mother, Madame Larina the widowed owner of the vast estate goes down memory lane with Tatiana’s minder Filipyevna.

10: After much background Russian peasant chorusing which does eventually become a grand climax *.

14: Olga’s song about how she loves to have fun, but the music reveals that she is just as much a romantic as her sister *.

21: The orchestra takes something of a break and allows the young people (Tatiana, Olga, Lensky, and Onegin) to engage in gender specific dialogues with each other **.

26: But it doesn’t last long before they pair up and take turn about like a Faustian garden scene: first Lensky and Olga, then Onegin and Tatiana (here there is an interesting tune that must symbolize youth), then Lensky. and Olga who sings a loverly poem ***. Larina and Filipyevna plan dinner and Onegin and Tatiana return once more before the scene ends.

Scene 2: Tatiana’s Bedroom.

37. 43, 46: After a long dialogue between Tatiana and Filipyevna in which they discuss the latter’s past love life, we come to the famous Letter Scene ** as Tatiana stays up all night writing a letter to Onegin. She starts well, gets bogged down into orchestral recitative until she mounts a summit **, followed by a new melody which seems half-way to the Pathetique ** which turns into a short fortissimo symphony as she finishes the letter which borders on schmaltzy whimsy and nods off (or not). The depiction of the dawn that follows is also rather grand, a shepherd’s pipe, and a nostalgic return of the Tatiana theme on a solo viola as she sends the letter off curtesy of Filipyevna.

Scene 3: Another part of the Larina garden.

60: Servant girls sing the typical mild Russian stuff before Tatiana comes on in a panic awaiting Onegin. When he does, he lets her down to one of the most dull arias in operatic  history * that actually isn’t ornery. The servant girls finish off the scene as Tatiana is left alone to take in the rather inadequate end of the act.

ACT 2: (35 minutes)

Scene 2: Ballroom of the Larina residence.

2: We start off with more Tatiana’s Longing but then things tune sinister, but no Tchaikovsky gives us something rather awesome (and a waltz!) *** as the party guests celebrate Tatiana’s name day. A large amount of plot gets covered here to this waltz tune: everyone wonders why Tatiana is yet unmarried, Onegin bored out of his mind so he dances with Olga which upsets Lensky who confronts her in recitative, but she tells him he has nothing to worry about (he doesn’t heed this and instead pouts about like a ticked puppy).

10: Monsieur Tricquet’s French couplet is the only comic element in the entire score and for that it gets a star even if it is really isn’t that great * as he “honours” Tatiana on her name’s day. It is the ultimate elderly tenor part as the entire experience lasts all of four minutes.

13: With the Mazurka ** we enter into the best section of the opera that isn’t a stand alone number. Onegin asks Lensky why he is so unnerved and he freaks out on him for dancing with Olga, eventually leading to the challenge of a duel, which causes Larina to freak about a challenge occurring in her house.

20: Lensky goes off in the most passive aggressive way imaginable as he sedate screams at Larina “In your house!/V vasem dome!” it turns into a grand ensemble ** as no one except Lensky (including Onegin) can make any sense of this demand for a duel.

Scene 2: A snowy field.

25: Lensky and his second Zaretsky (an otherwise unimportant character) wait for Onegin. Lensky’s farewell *** is a number that try as I might to love it (and I know it is probably second only to the Letter Scene in terms of fame) it has no real tune, at least not one I can detect.

31: The duel scene is boring *, the only shock might be that Lensky gets killed instead of Onegin. Although then we wouldn’t have much of an opera left now would we?. The boys do remember happier times when they were boys, but it is so gloomy. Oh well, at least the act ends on that “duel at freezing dawn” theme.

ACT 3: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: Ballroom of the Gremin palace, St. Petersburg, around five years later.

0: The Polonaise * is famous but I feel would have made a better entr’acte than a dance.

8: Onegin is B.O.R.E.D. as usual and now he really regrets not having a family and just roaming about the world. Thankfully he gets interrupted by a danse Ecossaise which doesn’t sound remotely Scottish but whatever it is tuneful at least *.

11: Gremin’s aria on marriage ***, a brilliant three part aria which only fuels Onegin’s fantasy of having a family of his own. Apparently Gremin is Onegin’s much older cousin.

19: Onegin’s arioso in which he finally realizes that he loves Tatiana (sort of) to the Letter Scene tune **, the scene closes with a return of the Ecossaise. 

Scene 2: Drawing Room of Prince Gremin’s house.

21: The final duet * starts with a clock ticking tune. Technically it is supposed to be modelled on the Huguenots act 4 duet, but if no one told you this you would never know because it is incredibly boring. It does get the narrative from a to b successfully at least.

COMMENTS:

So first the good. There are five amazing numbers in this opera which even if the rest of it were total garbage would salvage it to alpha level. These are of course Lenski’s two arias, Tatiana’s world famous Letter Scene, the ballroom dances at the start of the second act with that scene’s dramatic conclusion, and Gremin’s aria on marriage. That said, what makes them so great is what is probably the opera’s chief flaw: it is excruciatingly effeminate. The actions of all of the characters are more the stuff of teenage girl fan fiction than even operatic drama (where credulity is already suspended). Lensky’s demand for a duel with his best friend over dancing with his girlfriend (who also happens to be the sister of the b-day girl) is just ridiculous, but it is also the single dramatic event in the opera. For an opera named after a male character, there isn’t a trace of masculinity in it, at all. Granted, what we have here is the heterosexual romantic yearnings of a dominating female character being projected by a gay male, it probably wouldn’t bode well just at face value, but factoring that Pushkin actually came up with this narrative leads to some rather awkward questions. While Onegin himself is musically and dramatically a bore, Lensky is a wannabe Heathcliff of the sort that exists only in heterosexual female wet dreams, and the Larina sisters are both the kind of girl you know carries around some sort of plush stuffed animal.

The orchestra does significantly more than the singers, including being significantly stronger than any of the vocal parts and basically framing everything that actually relates to the drama. In fact, the singers aren’t actually doing very much. Onegin himself doesn’t become a full fledged character until act 2, and Tatiana is hardly noticeable at all in this act (she has six lines). Apart from Lensky, and possibly Olga, all the other parts are basically cameos, yet both of the second leads are gone by the end of the second act. So we start off thinking Tatiana will be the main character, she then all but disappears after the first act only to return in the final scene. Onegin is the title character, but we really don’t get much of him until the second act, and when we do get something out of him, we realize how much both we and Tchaikovsky don’t like him. By act three we aren’t so much seeing the world from feminine eyes so much as from the perspective of a middle-aged man (say thirty-five or forty) worried about his mortality and legacy. We know that Onegin really doesn’t love Tatiana, he is worried about dying alone. It is also not certain if Tatiana will eventually marry Onegin, only that she will not betray her husband while he is alive. Gremin is supposed to be well over sixty, Tatiana herself around twenty-five at the end of the opera, you do the math. A beta or a very low alpha according to taste.

What do you expect from an opera that if you start typing “Is Eugene Onegin…” what pops up on the Google is “a good opera?”.

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2 thoughts on “Piotr Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin (1879)

  1. That’s a really good point! It’s effeminate – or, more kindly, feminine.

    The heroine is a teenage girl, and it’s all about crushes. The stuff of high school romcoms! (And I can just see this filmed as one.)

    The opera’s biggest fans I’ve come across are women, rather than men (a few online, one Australian radio commentator).

    There’s not much here for guys. No adventure / explosions / sword-fights / ship-wrecks / murders [duel doesn’t count] – and no comedy either.

    It’s the difference between, say, Austen and Tolstoy on one hand (balls, gossip, love affairs, with interminable chapters describing farming equipment) – and Alexandre Dumas and Conan Doyle on the other.

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    1. Well, admittedly, romcoms do have male audiences, and might even be repellant to some women. Eugene Onegin does have its own appeal and I do think that Tchaikovsky did a fine job of conveying Tatiana’s romantic desire if it is Jane Austen-y (the reference is very apt!). I was thinking Pride and Prejudice (a novel I have both read and actually like). Personally I don’t need an opera to be an Errol Flynn action film for me to enjoy it (after all I love pastel things like Adriana Lecouvreur), and if anything Onegin could be seen as a warning to not destroy the romantic notions of young women. I cannot help but wonder if Tchaikovsky’s affiliation with Tatiana, and the negative way he portrays Onegin, were due to personal expereience.

      I had originally used the word “feminine” but I though “effeminate” would be stronger.

      There is, however, far too much of the narrative that revolves around dance numbers.

      Meanwhile, I’m working on La jolie fille de Perth.

      Like

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