Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel of the same name. The book consists of eight chapters, each of which is composed of stanzas written in verse (Doran 7). Pushkin’s book has been praised for vivid storytelling and innovative approach to structure (Doran 10). The plot revolves around a young dandy who moves from St. Petersburg to the countryside after inheriting an estate from his uncle (Pushkin 12). He meets Lensky, an idealistic romantic and an opposite to his cynical nature, becoming fast friends with him. After meeting the family of his fiancée, Onegin gains a romantic interest in Tatiana, the family’s eldest daughter (Pushkin 36). She falls in love with him, but after confessing her love to Onegin, he patronizingly rejects her (Pushkin 67). Later Lensky drags Onegin to Tatiana’s birthday celebration where Onegin feels uncomfortable and to spite Lensky starts dancing and flirting with Olga, his fiancée. This enrages Lensky prompting him to challenge Onegin to a duel (Pushkin 108). Both men are too proud to cancel it, and Onegin ends up killing Lensky and leaving his home in remorse (Pushkin 124). Years later he meets a more mature Tatiana and falls in love with her only to be rejected (Pushkin 169). The story is told from the point of view of a nameless narrator who refers to Onegin as a good pal of his. The book is permeated with ironic literary references and humor (Doran 10).
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In January of 1876, Tchaikovsky saw George Bizet’s Carmen which inspired him to create a libretto focused on real people connected to the modern way of life (Doran 32). After some hesitation, he chose Pushkin’s book as the basis for his libretto (Doran 33). This decision was met with doubt from his brothers, as they did not believe that Onegin could be made into a good opera. Nevertheless, the passion that Tchaikovsky felt for the story pushed him to compose the opera (Doran 34). It was first performed on March 29, 1878, at the Maly Theater in Moscow (Doran 35). It opened to mild enthusiasm but gained popularity with time (Doran 36). Opera omits a few scenes from the novel, including Tatiana’s dream and her visit to Onegin’s abandoned home (Doran 38). This was met with criticism from People who revered Pushkin’s work (Doran 41).
Arias of Lensky, Gremlin and Tatiana are the standouts of the opera (Kennaway 428). Gremin’s aria, in particular, is interesting as it almost mirrors Onegin’s feelings toward the now mature Tatiana. Earlier the music for Tatiana’s entrance creates a tone of nobility, changing both our and Onegin’s idea of Tatiana. Onegin reluctantly becomes attentive to her again (Kearney 223). Tchaikovsky then creates a larger appearance for Prince Gremin with his aria. It uses mostly new text and answers questions about life presented by Onegin at the beginning of the act (Kearney 224). He realizes the error of his rejection and must now leave the presence of the Prince (Kearney 225). Gremlin did not have a large role in the earlier drafts of the libretto, and his role in the novel was similarly small, but the final version not only meaningfully expands his character but also emphasizes the inner strength of Tatiana to go against desire (Kearney 230).
Tchaikovsky’s opera was not the only attempted adaptation of the novel. Princeton undergraduates in 2012 attempted to stage a translated adapted play by Krzhizhanovsky, but the production did not reach the rehearsal stage (Emerson 5). The fear of Stalinism was eventually cited as the reason for its cancellation (Emerson 1).
Doran, Molly C. The Transformation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin into Tchaikovsky’s Opera. Diss. Bowling Green State University, 2012.
Emerson, Caryl. “Tairov’s Theater, Evreinov’s Monodramatic Moment, And The Lessons Of Eugene Onegin, A Drama In Verse.” Pushkin Review, vol 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-23. Johns Hopkins University Press. Web.
Emerson, Caryl. “Untranslatable Pushkin and the Infectious Stage (Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin by American Undergraduates)”. Russian Journal of Communication, vol 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2-30. Informa UK Limited. Web.
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Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Kennaway, George. “The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck by Michael Rose”. Notes, vol 70, no. 3, 2014, pp. 427-429. Johns Hopkins University Press. Web.
Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeevich. Eugene Onegin. University of California Press, 1937.