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In these "lyrical scenes in three acts", premiered in 1879 by a student ensemble at Moscow's Maly (i.e. Small) Theatre, Tchaikovsky chose not to use the "grand styled" theatre that was largely mandatory for opera performances during this time period: "I do not need tsars, tsarinas, uprisings, battles, marches... I am looking for an intimate but powerful drama based on the conflicts that I myself have experienced or seen, those which touched me deeply.”
The composer found such insight in Alexander Pushkin's intimate drama and novel in verse, Eugene Onegin (1833), which has gone down in cultural history as the "Encyclopedia of Russian Life". In it Pushkin masterfully describes the life of contemporary society of the time and all its diversity. With his eponymous hero, he created for the first time what would later be called a "superfluous man", a recurring archetype of Russian literature.
The fame of this newer style conflicted with the opera’s initial reception – especially in Russia itself. Despite the immediate appreciation of its music, he was perceived as having corrupted a cultural monument of national literature. Amongst some of those who rejected the piece of work, were none other than Ivan Tolstoy, who sent a horrified letter during the year of its premiere ("Imagine: Pushkin's verses about the characters put in his mouth!”). Similar comments were made by Vladimir Nabokov, who tirelessly castigated Tchaikovsky's "slapdash opera" in commentaries published in 1964 on his translation of Pushkin's novel. The success of what likely continues to be one of the most famous Russian operas – apart from "Boris Godunov – was initially delayed by the backlash of critiques. In present times, we are able to give the play justice and see its aesthetic and dramaturgical autonomy, which is not exhausted by its certainly extraordinary musical beauty.
Tchaikovsky starts his adaption with the famous letter scene of Tatjana Lárina, a landowner's daughter who escapes from the confines of her circumstances into literary fantasy worlds. Her character identifies herself with the heroines of the epistolary novels, while simultaneously throwing all rules of the genre out the window by making the first move as a woman and declaring her love to a man. But Onegin, a confident dandy incapable of committing, who was brought from the capital city to the estate next door to the Lárins’ for matters of inheritance, coolly rejects her love: in reaction to her passionate self-revelation he gifts her a sermon. On Tatjana's name day, he vents his bad mood in reaction by provoking his only friend and confidant, the young poet Lenski, shooting him nolens volens in the ensuing duel. After these events, Onegin travels aimlessly throughout the world. Three years later he meets Tatjana again as an admired hostess of a Petersburg salon by the side of a highly decorated general. In witnessing this scene, Onegin realises that he has missed his opportunity of finding happiness in his life. As an ironic twist, it is now Onegin who feels the pain of rejection.
The epic model of this play led to special theatrical solutions that, at the time, had not yet been available or seen in traditional operas. This can already be witnessed in the composer’s choice of genre designation: Lyrical scenes in three acts. The loosely constructed narrative makes it barely possible to distinguish between the main characters and those who are secondary characters. Even if the musical parts are weighted differently, attention is drawn just as much to Tatjana's fun-loving sister Olga, her fiancé Lenski and her mother Lárina, with an ear also lent to the bitter life story of Tatjana's old nurse and even a minor figure like Saretzki, the second in the fatal duel, is precisely portrayed. One single appearance in the last act is ample enough to have Tatjana's husband Greminan give a lasting impression.