Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: Eugene Onegin

A cheat’s guide to the beautiful Russian opera.

Who was the composer?

Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky had a gift for melody that catapulted him out of cloistered Russian music circles and made the west take notice.

He took up piano at 5, could read music by 8 and wrote his first waltz in response to his mother’s death when he was just 14.

Despite his success with works such as the beautiful overture for Romeo and Juliet, Russian critics remained suspicious of his music for most of the composer’s life – believing it was “not Russian enough”.

Tchaikovsky wrote Eugene Onegin during a year abroad after the disastrous dissolution of a two-and-a-half month marriage.

By the time of his death, Tchaikovsky was respected at home and abroad – although it would be many years before Eugene Onegin was performed overseas.

Tchaikovsky died suddenly at the age of 53, supposedly of cholera. Some scholars suggest it was self-inflicted.

What happens in the story?

Tatyana is young and innocent: she spends her days reading novels and dreaming of literary heroes. That is, until she meets Eugene Onegin – a friend of her sister’s lover, the poet Lensky.

Tatyana is smitten, and pours her heart into a letter to the stranger. But Onegin is unmoved and offers only his friendship.

When Lensky tricks his friend into attending a ball on Tatyana’s property, Onegin takes his revenge, flirting with Olga and arousing his friend’s jealousy.

A duel is announced, a shot is fired, and a few years pass before Tatyana and Onegin meet again.

First loves are not easily forgotten – but what will their meeting bring?

Who are the main players?

Photos by Lisa Tomasetti

Photos by Lisa Tomasetti

What’s the big hit?

This clip is of soprano Anna Netrebko singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production.

The letter scene! Tatyana sings a stunning aria as she pens her letter to Onegin, where Tchaikovsky perfectly captures the stirrings of first love.

This production is …

Kasper Holten. Photo by: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Kasper Holten. Photo by: Sim Canetty-Clarke

… the brainchild of Kasper Holten – the impossibly young and visionary Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

As the story of the opera is told through the eyes of Tatyana and Onegin as they look back on their lives, Holten wanted to find a way to represent memory on stage. Thus, he doubled the two leads with young dancers, who represent the young Onegin and Tatyana in pivotal moments on stage.

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Holten wanted to explore how our experiences and understanding of our own character colour our memories. The set is therefore a nondescript (though beautiful) period building, which forms a blank canvas for projections and backdrops as the house literally “fills up” with memories.

Holten explains the concept in his own words here.

A little history

Elena Samokish-Sudkovskaya painted Eugene Onegin in 1908.

Elena Samokish-Sudkovskaya painted scenes from Eugene Onegin in 1908.

Tchaikovsky loved the tale of Eugene Onegin and once he had written the opera, found himself reluctant to offer it to the seasoned opera professionals of the Bolshoi Theatre, terrified the conventions of opera at the time would choke the intimate story.

A group of students at Moscow Conservatory were thus the first to stage the opera, in 1879. Two years later, the Bolshoi Theatre had its turn. It was nearly a decade before other European houses staged the piece (they likely saw it as a Russian curiosity).

Conversation starters

  • Tchaikovsky was completely opposed to the idea of writing an opera based on Eugene Onegin (when someone proposed it, he wrote to a friend “it struck me as wild and I made no reply”). But a few months later, he found himself transfixed by the letter scene of Pushkin’s novel. “I had so familiarised myself with the figure of Tatyana that she had become for me a living person,” he wrote.
  • The first Western premieres of the opera were not sung in Russian. The Metropolitan Opera in New York performed an Italian translation and the first English performance was sung in English.

Want more?

Young Australian star soprano Nicole Car will sing her first Tatyana in this production. Watch as she describes how she’ll approach the naive heroine.

Curious? For more information and tickets to see Eugene Onegin, click here.

11 Responses to “Cheat Sheet: Eugene Onegin”

  1. Sandra Miles-Wood

    I found the information and reminder provided an excellent service.

    Reply
  2. Caroline Kayser

    This service is a great initiative on the part of OA. Makes being a subscriber really worthwhile assuming it is only available to subscribers.

    Reply
  3. Margot

    Thanks for the reminders a couple of days before – invaluable to me. Love the information provided; it certainly whets the appetite. I am really looking forward to this opera which I seem to have missed over the years.

    Reply
  4. Richard Wade

    I thank OA for this briefing on Eugene Onegin: I am looking forward to Friday night’s performance. I found the blog very informative and it has helped me focus on this big weekend of opera: Eugene Onegin and Madama Butterfly. I thank OA for taking on this opera as we don’t often get a chance to see operas in Russian, my favourite foreign language.
    Regards
    Richard Wade

    Reply
  5. Bill

    Thanks, this is an excellent service. Along with ABC Radio’s recent coverage of Kasper’s work I am ready to rock.

    Reply
  6. Barbara Peck

    Thank you for the “cheat sheet” it is really good to be able to read it leisurely before the night. Sometimes it is difficult to take in the story at the performance when given the cast sheet. I also have missed this opera over the years though I did buy the book after a visit to Russia a few years ago when I learned more about Pushin.

    Reply
  7. Barbara Peck

    Thank you for the “cheat sheet” it is really good to be able to read it leisurely before the night. Sometimes it is difficult to take in the story at the performance when given the cast sheet. I also have missed this opera over the years though I did buy the book after a visit to Russia a few years ago when I learned more about Pushkin

    Reply
  8. LIZ Aitchison

    Thanks for the cheat sheet! We thought that it was a wonderful production and Nicole Car as Tatyana was exceptional. Thought that the set and video design was wonderful. One of our most enjoyable operas in 30years of opera attendance.

    Reply

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Nicole Car and Dalibor Jenis as Tatyana and Onegin in Eugene Onegin. Photos by Lisa Tomasetti.
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Eugene Onegin opens this evening at Sydney Opera House. Toi toi toi, everybody! ABC News interviewed our leading lady Nicole Car....

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