Risk and Regret: Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin'

From The Vienna State Opera

There are plenty of ways to take intentional risks in life. You might take up skydiving, bungee jumping or freestyle rock climbing — a few of the many activities that risk-averse individuals tend to avoid.

The Hit Single

In the middle scene of Act One, Tatyana (soprano Tamar Iveri) pours out her feelings in a letter to Onegin, whom she has barely met. As the long scene concludes, she puts the earnest, finishing touches on the letter, and worries about the emotional risk she's taking.

Tatyana's Letter

4 min 45 sec
 

The B Side

While he waits for Onegin to arrive for their duel, Lensky (tenor Ramon Vargas) sings a desperate aria, recalling the old days and hoping Olga will remember him if things turn out badly.

Lensky's Aria

6 min 43 sec
 
Tamar Iveri and Simon Keenlyside i i

Tatyana (soprano Tamar Iveri) appeals to Onegin (baritone Simon Keenlyside) in the Vienna production of Tchaikovsky's opera. Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Weininger hide caption

itoggle caption Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Weininger
Tamar Iveri and Simon Keenlyside

Tatyana (soprano Tamar Iveri) appeals to Onegin (baritone Simon Keenlyside) in the Vienna production of Tchaikovsky's opera.

Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Weininger

But even those who seldom take physical risks will often take a chance that may be even more intimidating — making what might be called a "romantic plunge." That happens when you fall so hard for someone that you simply spill it, telling your new heartthrob exactly how you feel without knowing if those feelings are mutual.

These days, that sort of risk is often taken without truly thinking about it: in a spontaneous e-mail reply, an ill-considered IM or a reckless tweet. But before the time of instant communication it was often done with a love letter, and a letter is more than just an impulse. A love letter takes real courage — the courage to ponder your fondest hopes, carefully put them down on paper, drop them in the mail and then wait, helplessly, for a reply.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky knew all about love letters. In the spring of 1877, he received one from a music student he hardly remembered from the Moscow Conservatory. It seems he didn't pay it much mind. Then, during the same month, a friend introduced him to Eugene Onegin, a verse novel by Pushkin, thinking it might make a good opera. In the story, the title character receives a touching love letter from an earnest young woman — and rejects her out of hand, with disastrous consequences.

Tchaikovsky was determined not to live out that same scenario. So when he received another letter from his admirer, he agreed to meet her, and before long actually proposed marriage. Weeks later, with the wedding at hand, he had also finished two thirds of his new opera.

The composer's marriage didn't turn out so well. Tchaikovsky and his new wife were both miserable, and they ended things after only a few months. The opera has fared much better, and may now be the most popular Russian opera of all time.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a lush production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with a first rate cast of singers, from the Vienna State Opera. Baritone Simon Keenlyside is Onegin, with soprano Tamar Iveri as Tatyana and tenor Ramon Vargas in the tragic role of Lensky, all led by conductor Seiji Ozawa.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Eugene Onegin'

Ramon Vargas and Simon Keenlyside

The struggle between Lensky (tenor Ramon Vargas, left) and Onegin (baritone Simon Keenlyside) eventually leads to a deadly duel. Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger hide caption

itoggle caption Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger
Tamar Iveri

Tatyana (soprano Tamar Iveri) takes a huge emotional risk when she writes a deeply-felt love letter to a man she barely knows. Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger hide caption

itoggle caption Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger

Tchaikovsky's opera has three acts, divided into what the composer called "Lyric Scenes." ACT ONE begins at a country home. Tatyana and her sister Olga are singing a duet, while their mother and the maid reminisce about courtship and marriage.

WHO'S WHO?

  • Simon Keenlyside ........ Onegin
  • Tamar Iveri ................ Tatyana
  • Ramon Vargas ............ Lensky
  • Nadia Krasteva ............ Olga
  • Margarita Hintermeier ... Filipyevna
  • Ain Anger ............. Prince Gremin
  • Alexander Kaimbacher .... Triquet
  • Aura Twarowska ......... Larina
  • Marcus Peltz ........ Zaretsky
  • Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Seizi Ozawa, conductor

As farm workers bring in the last of the harvest, there's a chorus and a dance. A neighbor called Lensky shows up with a friend named Eugene Onegin. Onegin's eye is on Tatyana, and he doesn't understand why his Lensky has fallen for her less interesting sister, Olga.

Tatyana falls for Onegin almost immediately, and thinks her wait for Mr. Right has just ended. As the two couples pair off, Lensky sings of his love for Olga, while Onegin quizzes Tatyana about the limitations of life in the country.

Later that night, Tatyana is in her room with the maid Filipyevna. She admits that she's obsessed by her passion for Onegin. She asks for pen and paper, and wants to be left alone to compose a letter to Onegin, confessing her love. It's a long scene, filled with emotions — a tour de force for the soprano, both musically and dramatically. As she finishes writing, she knows that she may have revealed herself too fully. Still, when Filipyevna returns the next morning, Tatyana makes her promise to mail the letter immediately.

A few days later, Onegin arrives at the house with his reply. The news is bad. In the garden, he tells Tatyana that he was touched by her letter, but he can only love her like a brother; he's not cut out for commitment. And besides, he says, she should learn to control her feelings a little better. Tatyana is devastated, and the act ends quietly, as her friends try to comfort her while they escort her home.

ACT TWO begins in Tatyana's house, where a party is being thrown for her name day. Onegin and Lensky are both there, along with a local military captain, and other guests. Onegin is bored. So for his own entertainment, he flirts with Olga — Lensky's girlfriend — and asks her to dance. The Frenchman Triquet sings a few verses he's composed in honor of Tatyana, while Onegin continues dancing with Olga.

Naturally, Lensky is unhappy with Onegin's obvious attentions to Olga. As he watches the two together, he grows more and more jealous by the minute. Suddenly, he loses it. Lensky denounces Onegin and says a fateful goodbye to Olga. Then, to everyone's surprise, he challenges Onegin to a duel: pistols at dawn, by the river.

The next day, just after sunrise, Lensky is ready — standing in the bitter cold, by the water mill. He and his second, Zaretsky, are waiting for Onegin. In the interlude, Lensky sings one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful arias. Resigned to the possibility that things might go badly, he longs for old days and hopes Olga will remember him.

Onegin finally shows up, apologizing nonchalantly for being late. The seconds mark off the paces, and a pistol shot rings out. Lensky falls dead, leaving Onegin amazed that he has just killed his good friend.

ACT THREE takes place in St. Petersburg, five years after the duel. Since then, Onegin has spent his time drifting, disillusioned with his life and haunted by Lensky's death. One day, he finds himself at a black-tie gala. When the arrival of a princess is announced, Onegin realizes that he's seen the woman before. It's Tatyana, and she's obviously done well — making her appearance in an extravagant gown and with a nobleman on her arm.

Her husband, Prince Gremin, introduces his wife to Onegin by singing of his deep love for her. Tatyana and Gremin excuse themselves and leave, as Onegin realizes that he's now fallen in love with the woman he once rejected.

The opera ends with a powerful scene between Tatyana and Onegin. He's come to her home, and this time, it's Onegin who confesses his love. She says he's only interested in her now because she's wealthy. He denies it. She remembers how close they were to happiness. Then finally, she admits she that does still love him. They embrace, but Tatyana pulls back. Her fate has been decided, she says. She's a married woman, and Onegin must leave. He begs to stay with her, but she turns her back and walks out of the room, as Onegin cries out in misery.

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