Eugene Onegin: A labor of love (and a little fear)

Madison Opera opens the 2011-2012 Season of Dreamers with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, our first Tchaikovsky piece and our first Russian-language opera. The composer is most well-known for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and, of course, the 1812 Overture which is performed at every public Fourth of July celebration in the United States. If you’re scratching your head as to how an overture celebrating a Russian victory over Napoleon has become a staple of American independence…well, that’s a topic for another blog.

Tchaikovsky is one of Russia’s most important musical luminaries. He produced his extensive body of work during the Russian Romantic period, a volatile era spanning the 18th and 19th centuries during which Russia forged a distinct cultural identity. Russian Romanticism reflects Imperial Russia’s captivation with longing, love, and the nature of the human spirit, themes expressed thoroughly in Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote an opera of passion and honesty, but he very nearly never wrote it at all.

Aleksandr Pushkin
1799-1837, seven years of which
were spent writing Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin was first penned as a novel in verse by iconic poet, Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin is of even greater importance to Russia than Tchaikovsky. An old Soviet joke goes that the winning entry in a national Pushkin monument competition, judged by Stalin himself, was a statute of Stalin reading Pushkin. The moral of the story: above all else, the legend and stature of Pushkin would withstand government tyranny, social upheaval, and historical revision. Pushkin is to Russia as Shakespeare is to England, and more. During a period when most of upper-class Russia denounced their own language and culture as vulgar in favor of French words and attitudes, Pushkin wrote in Russian from a Russian perspective. For this reason, he is the undisputed father of Russian literature.

It is therefore completely understandable that after someone else suggested Tchaikovsky turn Pushkin’s poem into an opera, Tchaikovsky dismissed the idea as “quite preposterous.” How could an opera capture the subtle, witty, glittering narrative of the poem? More importantly, how could he dare to subject the greatest national literary treasure to operatic conventions?

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

After one sleepless night, Tchaikovsky found the answer. A prolific letter writer (5,347 letters survive to this day), Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest:

“How pleasant to avoid all the routine Pharaohs, Ethiopian princesses, poisonded [sic] cups and all the rest of these tales about automata. What poetry there is in Onegin! I am not blind to its faults. I fully realize that it gives little scope for treatment, and will be poor in stage effect, but the richness of the poetry, the humanity and simplicity of the subject, embodied in Pushkin´s inspired verse, will make up for whatever it lacks in other ways.” (1877)

Modest, along with most of Tchaikovsky’s circle of friends and peers, criticized him for his choice of topic and urged him not to take the risk of infuriating Russia by adapting Pushkin’s beloved verse to stage. While Tchaikovsky’s letters express his own anxieties about molding Pushkin’s masterpiece into opera, they also chronicle his love for the story and his belief that the public would embrace the work (after careful exposure and a suitable warming-up period, of course). In the end, Tchaikovsky was proven right and the opera Eugene Onegin was embraced throughout Russian society from the poorest rural villages to the magnificent court of Tsar Alexander III.

The magic of Eugene Onegin lies not in its theatricality, of which there is very little, or its tragedy, which even Tchaikovsky described as banal, but in its emotional verity. Eugene Onegin is a story about the everyday occurrences that make up a human life: our impulsive desires, our longing for love and our need for friendship, the choices we make and how we live with our regrets. Tchaikovsky spent a year laboriously, lovingly, and a little fearfully capturing the universal emotions of Pushkin’s characters, in the end creating a masterpiece of music and poetry that is unique in the operatic repertoire.

Over the next few weeks leading up to opening night, MadOpera will explore the lives of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the language of music and dance (yes, dance!) in Eugene Onegin, and our breath-taking production of the opera. Along the way, there will be brief photographic forays into Russian culture, courtesy of the UW Madison Russian Folk Orchestra and the Russian Educational Association, and a guest blogger will give you an intimate introduction to Eugene Onegin‘s famous Letter Scene. If you just cannot wait until the next post, have a look at our Eugene Onegin opera guide.

It’s going to be a fun and informative few weeks, so be sure to get your tickets to Eugene Onegin before the excitement overwhelms you.

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Benjamin Taylor

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