12 Facts About "Eugene Onegin" You Did Not Realize


"Eugene Onegin" is one of the most popular Russian operas. But do we really know everything about this story?

The opera is based on the iconic novel in verse “Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin - a cornerstone of Russian literature. The libretto stays very close to the original text. However, some quite interesting facts are not included in the opera, and can only be found in the original novel.

1. All main characters are very young - at the beginning of the opera Onegin is 26, Lensky is 17, Tatyana is only 13 years old, Olga is even younger. By the end of the opera, Tatyana is probably about 17 years old.

There are discussions among researchers about Tatyana's and Olga's ages. However, this is what we can get directly from Pushkin's text.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

This also helps us to see that the differences between Olga and Tatyana come not just from their personalities. Tatyana has entered her puberty period; she is consumed by doubts, dreams and exploration of her sexuality. Olga is literally still a child; she simply wants to play and is not able to really appreciate Lensky’s love just yet.


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This also explains why Lensky is so quick to challenge his older friend. Onegin, being 26 and having lots of previous experience with women, does not expect that Lensky will take his slight flirt with Olga so seriously. However, Lensky is still a teenager. He is taking everything overly dramatically, he is lacking experience, wisdom and also feels the need to prove himself as a man.

An older person could have done what Larina's husband did. He realized that she was in love with someone else, so they got quickly married and he took her away to live in the countryside. And after time the love of her youth was forgotten.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

cropped from http://clubs.ya.ru/4611686018427431435/replies.xml?item_no=1034

Pushkin himself was quite young at that time too; he was working on this novel for seven years - he started when he was just 24 and finished at 31.

Alexander Pushkin. Portrait by Orest Kiprensky

2. At the beginning of the story, Lensky had just returned from Germany where he studied and embraced European philosophical ideas of that time. This detail made him stand out among all his neighbors. These were mostly people concerned with their children and household, their crops and the little news of their provincial life. They perceived Lensky as the 'half-Russian poet' and a good potential party for their daughters. Onegin was the only person among all of them who was somewhat close to Lensky in his education and background. This is why they became friends despite the difference in age and personalities.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

It is interesting that in "Queen of Spades" Pushkin takes this concept even further - he makes Hermann a German national, underlining his loneliness, lack of roots, any substantial fortune and lack of extended family support in Russia.

3. Tatyana wrote her letter to Onegin in French because her written Russian was not good enough. At that time, French was the language of high society in Russia, and for Tatyana, like for many other women of her generation, French was her primary language. She would probably talk to Onegin, Lensky, her sister, her mother and later to her husband in French too and use Russian mostly to talk to the servants who did not speak French.

Watch Tatyana's letter scene performed by Anna Netrebko (with English subtitles)

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4. The Chorus of Maidens is one of my favourite choir numbers in Russian Opera. It is light, playful and folky. However, these girls are not singing just because they feel like to do so. They are all slaves of Tatyana's family. In this scene, they are picking berries for their masters, and they are MADE to sing so that they cannot eat the berries at the same time.

"Chorus of Maidens" from "Eugene Onegin"

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5. Just before Tatyana's ball where the fated argument between Lensky and Onegin happened, Larina and Lensky agreed on the date of his and Olga's wedding. It was meant to happen in just two weeks.

This is another reason why Lensky reacts so strongly to Olga’s flirt with Onegin, and this is why he sings in his aria 'Come, I am your spouse".


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Thus the phrase sung by Tatyana in the opera finale "and happiness was so possible, so close..." is very relevant for the story of Lensky and Olga as well.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

6. In the original story, before her birthday celebration, Tatyana had a weird, scary dream that predicted the following conflict and Lensky's death.

Tatiana Larina's dream by I.Volkov (1891)

7. In the novel, there is no challenge scene or any discussion between Onegin and Lensky about the situation at all. This dramatic scene when Lensky openly accuses Onegin and Olga in front of all guests was written specifically for the opera. In the original text, Lensky feels insulted and betrayed, so he simply leaves the ball. Next morning he sends his second to Onegin with a brief challenge note. Onegin accepts it.

I.Repin. "Duel of Onegin and Lensky" (1899)

8. In the original story, Lensky and Olga make up before the duel, and everything seems just as normal between them again. Vladimir spends the night writing poems and dreaming about Olga instead of resting and getting ready for the duel.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

9. Still, Olga did not mourn Lensky for long. She quickly fell in love with an officer and married him just a few months after Lensky's death. This marriage was not as brilliant as it could have been with Lensky. She had to travel with her husband wherever his regiment was sent and overall, their life did not hold the promise to be particularly comfortable and prosperous.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

10. In many opera productions, Onegin shows very little emotion when he realizes that he had killed Lensky. Partly it comes from the way Tchaikovsky wrote the music for this scene. However, Pushkin states a few times that after he shoots, Onegin runs up to Lensky, calling for his name in desperation.

Watch the duel scene performed by S.Lemeshev (Lensky) and E.Belov (Onegin) (1961)

11. After Lensky’s death, Onegin left the village to travel. For a while, Tatyana used to come to his house. Onegin's servants used to let her in without questions and she used to sit in his room and read his books. Looking at his notes in these books, she vaguely started to realize that he was just a ‘parody’ of a hero.

Illustration from "Eugene Onegin" edition (1908) by Samokish-Sudakovskaya

12. In the opera finale Tatyana declares that, although she still loves Eugene, she is determined to stay faithful to her husband. She leaves, and Onegin is left alone, shattered and desperate.

Watch "Eugene Onegin" Final Scene performed by Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Renée Fleming (with English subtitles)

However, there is one more detail in the original novel. As Tatyana leaves, Onegin hears the footsteps and Tatyana's husband enters the room. The story ends, leaving Eugene in a very uncertain and dangerous situation. In a minute, he would have to explain what he was doing there, uninvited and unexpected. This could very well lead to a duel. But this time his opponent would not be a 17-year-old poet. Tatyana's husband is a battle-scarred general. He would not hesitate to shoot first.

This was our list of rarely discussed facts about “Eugene Onegin”. Knowing these details might help in the characters’ interpretation and acting. If you are performing in a production of this opera, it is always useful to find the translation of the novel by Pushkin and read through it to learn more about this story and the atmosphere of that time.

Natalia Melnik

01/01/2020


The translations of Pushkin's novel in verse "Eugene Onegin" are available here:

English:

Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Oxford World's Classics)

Russian Dual Language Book: Eugene Onegin in Russian and English


Audiobook:

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin (Complete) CD, Audiobook


Other languages:

Eugene Onegin a novel in verse (Spanish Edition)

叶甫盖尼·奥涅金( Eugene Onegin) (Chinese Edition)


Full Opera Libretto:

Tchaikovsky-Eugene Onegin: Russian-English Libretto (Opera d'Oro Grand Tier)

Eugene Onegin Libretto


Full Vocal score:

Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 and Iolanthe, Op. 69

Eugene Onegin in Full Score


Recordings of the full opera are available here: