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?
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 …
… 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.
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
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).
- 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.
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.