Yevgeny Onegin (‘Eugene Onegin’)
- Richard Taruskin
Lyric scenes in three acts by Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by the composer and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s novel in verse (1833); Moscow, Malïy Theatre, 17 /29 March 1879 [students of the Moscow Conservatory]; professional première, Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 11 /23 January 1881.
The idea of transposing the most beloved work of Russian fiction to the musical stage was not Tchaikovsky’s to begin with. It was proposed to him, during a social call on 25 May /6 June 1877, by the contralto Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya (1845–1919), and, according to an oft-cited letter to his brother Modest, at first it struck the composer as ‘wild’. The drawbacks were obvious: Pushkin’s novel was loved for the telling, not the tale. The plot as such was slender and banal: a dreamy country girl falls in love with a young fop from the big city; she impulsively pours out her feelings to him in a letter; she is rebuffed and humiliated; five years later the two encounter one another again and fop is smitten; by now country girl has become a society matron who will not abandon her husband for her old love. There is also a subplot involving fop’s friend, a provincial poetaster, and country girl’s vacuous sister, over whom the two young men duel needlessly and the friend is meaninglessly slain. The book was loved for its divine details: the verbal dazzle, the wry social commentary, the perfectly exact descriptions, the endlessly subtle and nuanced characterizations, the ironized interrelationship of literary and social conventions – all that comes under the heading of narrative quality....