Eugene Onegin: A Dangerous Love Letter

The following is written by guest blogger Kylie Toomer. Kylie is the new Artistic and Office Manager for Madison Opera. She received her B.A. from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and her M.M. in Performance from the University of North Texas, where she studied with renowned American Tenor Richard Croft.

Many of us may reminisce on our adolescence and fondly (or not-so fondly) remember our “first love” and the tumultuous feelings of excitement, expectation, and doubt. “Should I confess how I feel?  What if they don’t feel the same? But, what if I say nothing? I have to say something!” Then the moment comes: you finally get up the nerve to bare your soul. Your palms are sweaty, you cannot stop fidgeting, you forget to breathe, and you lose all ability to form a coherent sentence. You finally blurt out: “I-like-you-will-you-go-out-with-me?” Good thing you spent all that time rehearsing in front of the mirror!
Tatiana with a romance novel (Lidia Timoshenk)
In Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, Eugene Onegin, we meet an adolescent who is discovering her first love. Tatiana, a young country girl who always has her head in a romance novel, meets and instantly falls for the mysterious Onegin. Tatiana resolves to tell Onegin exactly how she feels in one of the most celebrated scenes in the opera, the “Letter Scene.”  Tchaikovsky brilliantly portrays Tatiana’s feelings of exhilaration and hesitation as she pours out her heart to Onegin. Tatiana is young, but she understands the possible consequences of telling Onegin her true feelings. Nevertheless, she is compelled by a stronger force—that of fate— and ultimately succumbs to her emotions.
As the scene begins, Tatiana speaks with a passion and dramatic fire that mimics what she reads in her romance novels— a sign that her fantasies of love are far more real to her than reality (listen for this music again in Act II).  Finally, she begins to write. Tchaikovsky cleverly uses the orchestra to depict the scene: the syncopation (off-beat rhythm) of the low strings represents her erratic heartbeat, the oboe and the flute mimic her writing, and the arpeggiation of the harp paints the image of Tatiana dipping her quill in ink.   
Tatiana contemplates love (D.A. Belyukin)
Unsatisfied with her words, she tears up her letter. Tatiana is overwhelmed with frustration and fear of rejection, yet the hand of fate drives her to confess her feelings. Once again, the same interlude is heard and Tatiana begins another version of the letter, but ultimately discards it. She is convinced Onegin is the man destiny has chosen for her, despite her obvious fears and doubts; recklessness and rationality are fighting against each other. Eventually, Tatiana takes a moment to ponder the wisdom of her actions, and it is here that Tchaikovsky invokes some of the most sentimental and luscious melodies in the opera as she contemplates her as yet unknown fate. Tatiana asks herself: “Are you, Onegin, my guardian angel or my fatal tempter? Perhaps this is all trivial, an illusion of an inexperienced soul.” The simple rhythm and beautiful chromaticism (pitches not belonging to the primary tonal scale) evoke an overwhelming sense of honesty and hope; she is tempering her heart’s passions with a touch of caution. This is Tatiana’s first rational moment in the entire scene and is a glimpse of the woman she is to become. 
However, this moment of rationality is brief and Tatiana decides to commit her life to the hands of destiny. In a musical outburst of elation, this same sentimental motif is transformed into a more dramatic and fanciful state, as if Tatiana’s dream and her reality are at last intermingled. Notice the melody begins with the trombones and interweaves with woodwinds, while the flourishing of the strings mimic Tatiana’s elation. Without hesitation, she signs the letter and before she can change her mind, sends it to Onegin. Anxious but hopeful, she must now wait for an answer…
Tatiana and Onegin years later, with
Onegin’s letter to Tatiana at their feet (Lidia Timoshenk)
As you listen to soprano Maria Kanyova sing Tatiana’s beautiful letter scene, you will hear motifs that Tchaikovsky uses throughout the opera. These motifs are Tatiana’s thoughts and emotions, but Tchaikovsky cleverly weaves these motifs into Onegin’s music as he rediscovers Tatiana and this time falls in love with her. Tatiana’s youthful motif reappears in her final scenes with Onegin, where they serve as a symbol of what Onegin once scorned and will never have: a love as pure and honest as Tatiana’s love for him.   

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.

Benjamin Taylor

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