Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, composed in 1877-78, was a unique composition during Tchaikovsky’s time. It dared to deviate from Pushkin’s famous “Onegin,” and the style was far from the bel canto operas with which the contemporary performers were familiar. The opera was composed in roughly eight months, during a turbulent time in Tchaikovsky’s mental and physical health. The simplicity of the subject matter, lack of on-stage drama, and use of music to convey common human emotions were all distinct choices to which Tchaikovsky personally related. Tchaikovsky himself called his work “lyrical scenes in three acts” rather than an opera and said:
“Those for whom the first requirement in an opera is theatrical action will not like it. Only those who look to opera for the musical recreation of feelings remote from the tragic and the theatrical, ordinary, simple, human feelings – they (I hope) will find satisfaction in my opera.”
The idea of Eugene Onegin began, interestingly enough, with Bizet’s Carmen. Tchaikovsky had just seen a production of the opera in Paris in 1877 and became inspired to write an opera “dealing with real human beings, not lay-figures.” The idea of using the text of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” was suggested to Tchaikovsky by the singer Lavroskaya, and although the notion seemed absurd at first, Tchaikovsky eventually fell in love with the idea. The scene that struck Tchaikovsky the most was Tatyana’s Letter Scene, in which she stays up all night declaring her innocent and deeply felt love to Onegin.
“Another! No, there could never be another
To whom I’d give my love!
My life is bound to yours for ever;
This is decreed by heaven above.
Now my existence has a meaning,
Your noble soul for which I sigh.
I know that God above has sent you
To guard and love me till I die!"
It was highly ambitious of Tchaikovsky to even attempt to set such a well-known and beloved poem as Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” which Tchaikovsky himself was very aware. Many sources have said that Tchaikovsky was probably not the best composer to set Pushkin’s story, as Tchaikovsky’s sentimentalities differed so much from Pushkin’s own ideas of romanticism. Tchaikovsky chose to ignore Pushkin’s use of irony and biting criticisms, instead taking the characters of the story and humanizing them in a way that displays their virtues as well as their flaws. A way Tchaikovsky removed Pushkin’s irony was by removing the “omniscient first-person narrator…(that created) ironic distance in the poem.” Tchaikovsky collaborated with the librettist Shilovsky to create a libretto that at times was true to Pushkin’s lines, but also was greatly tinted by Tchaikovsky’s own personal attitudes and desires for the characters and story line. Many times the text follows Pushkin’s up to a point of sarcasm or capriciousness in the narrator’s tone, and then simply leaves out that section. Instead of relying on a narrator that would slow down and distance the opera from audience members, Tchaikovsky uses his music as “background…to paint the background of the novel,” acting as “both narrator and translator.”
There are many different ways that Pushkin’s “Onegin” could have been interpreted. The ironic, criticizing overtones that are throughout the poem are so obvious that they could not be overlooked, therefore Tchaikovsky’s version is a clear departure from Pushkin’s original satirical intent. Tchaikovsky’s sympathetic nature clearly comes out in his Onegin by his portrayal, without deriding undertones, of simple, rustic human life. In the composer’s own words:
“(I) tried to express in music as sincerely and truthfully as I could, that which was in the text. Such truth and sincerity come not from the work of the intellect, but spring from inner feeling. To give this feeling life and warmth I have always tried to choose stories in which the characters are real, living mean whose feelings are like my own.”
Berlin, Isaiah. "Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Onegin." The Musical Times 121 no. 1645 (1980).
Teachout, Terry. "A Quiet Place." Opera News 61 no. 15 (1997).