A sentimental ingénue confesses her love for an imperious aristocrat, and meets a crushing rejection. Years pass and the tables are turned, with poignant regrets for both. Based on Pushkin’s famed novel, Tchaikovsky’s deeply moving drama is marked by impassioned interactions and a continuous outpouring of glorious lyricism.
Fully staged production with members of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, sung in Russian with English supertitles
Act I, Scene I
It is dusk at a Russian estate in the early 19th century. The mistress of the estate, Larina, her daughters Tatyana and Olga, and their nurse Filippyevna, sing of the mysteries of love, including Larina’s nostalgia over a lost amorous adventure prior to her mundane marriage. Larina is serenaded by a chorus of peasants, who have just completed the harvest.
Olga’s fiancée, Lensky, arrives from St. Petersburg accompanied by his friend, Onegin. Tatyana is immediately struck by the handsome young man, and the two stroll together outdoors, accompanied by Olga and Lensky.
Act I, Scene II
Tatyana sits in her bedroom at night, joined by Filippyevna. Tatyana asks the nurse to tell her about love, but she cannot respond. Later, Tatyana pens a love letter to Onegin, and asks Filippyevna to deliver it.
Act I, Scene III
In a garden on the estate, maidens sing as they pick berries. Tatyana enters, followed by Onegin. He has read her letter, he tells her, and loves her, too, but is not interested in marriage, which he thinks would bore him. He tells her, rather, that he loves her with a brother’s love.
Act II, Scene I
Several months later, the estate is hosting a ball. Onegin dances with Tatyana and then with Olga. Meanwhile, much to the delight of the other guests, a French visitor, Triquet, has asked Tatyana to dance. Lensky and Onegin argue over Onegin’s attention to Olga. Their dispute escalates, and the jealous Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel.
Act II, Scene II
Lensky and Onegin, with their seconds, meet in a deserted mill for the duel. While both express private regrets at what has become of a once-ardent friendship, they proceed. Onegin fires first, and Lensky falls dead.
Act III, Scene I
Several years have passed. Onegin is a guest at a ball in the house of a St. Petersburg dignitary. Also present are Tatyana and her husband of two years, Prince Gremin. Onegin is struck by Tatyana’s beauty. Tatyana and Onegin are “introduced” to each other, and both feign casual acquaintance.
Act III, Scene II
Tatyana is at home, reading a love letter she has received from Onegin. He enters the room and drops to his knees, begging forgiveness for his former callousness. She admits to still loving him, but says she cannot leave her husband. He continues to beg, desperately, but she does not submit, leaving him to his despair.
Tchaikovsky was only one generation removed from the birth of Russian classical music (Michael Glinka gets the credit for penning the first Russian opera, A Life for the Tsar, in 1836). As such, he was a transitional figure in the development of his nation’s musical culture. He was an early graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which put him outside of the circle of self-taught composers who became known as the “Mighty Five”: Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and Cui. There was a mutual distrust and disdain between Tchaikovsky and this quintet of nationalists. The Five wanted their music to express natural Russian melodic and rhythmic patterns, including folk sources. They considered Tchaikovsky to be too cosmopolitan. He considered them to be arrogant amateurs.
But as is often the case in such historical feuds, the tensions among these artists has been misrepresented. Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for the originality and strength of the Five, and eventually developed strong friendships with Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. Besides, he expressed no little national pride himself, declaring in an 1891 letter to a director of the Imperial Theaters, “It seems to me that I am truly gifted with the ability truthfully, sincerely, and simply to express the feelings, moods, and images suggested by a text. In this sense I am a realist and fundamentally a Russian.”
These qualities are joyously on display in his 1879 opera Eugene Onegin, an adaptation of the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin—himself a careful observer of Russian speech patterns, including peculiarities of the Orthodox Church service. Pushkin’s enormously popular writing is so embedded in the idiomatic twists and turns of Russian grammar that the translator, Vladimir Nabokov, needed two full volumes to make sense of the story in English, even though the original only runs about one hundred pages.
Pushkin’s story remains best known to non-Russian audiences via its operatic treatment, but was deeply familiar to native readers. For this reason Tchaikovsky felt comfortable leaving out large stretches of the narrative, confident that his listeners would be able to complete the story line in their imaginations. For the rest of us, the libretto is cohesive enough that these omissions do not really affect the overall structure of the story.
The music itself features the characteristic mix of distinctively Russian elements with a rigorous academic technique that we hear in all of Tchaikovsky’s great scores. The opera opens with a remarkable ensemble of four female voices, exuding sweetly doleful, folkloric melodies. Elsewhere, there are choruses that (almost ironically) would be at home within a Mussorgsky opera. Beyond these overtly Slavic traits, there is a traditional Italianate opera structure, both in terms of plot line and the dramatic placement of major arias, which speaks to the composer’s desire to reach an international audience. The 1892 premieres in London and Hamburg were indeed successful (a young Gustav Mahler was the conductor in Hamburg, whom Tchaikovsky instantly identified as a musical genius). Eugene Onegin, perhaps more than any work of art preceding it, proved that Russian culture is exportable.
Joseph Mechavich is principal conductor of Kentucky Opera. He has presided over productions for Deutsche Oper Berlin, Auckland Philharmonia/New Zealand Opera, Washington National Opera, New York City Opera, Arizona Opera, Calgary Opera, Dayton Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Madison Opera, Opera Saratoga, Tulsa Opera, Utah Opera, and Virginia Opera; and at the Aspen Music Festival, New England Conservatory of Music, and Oberlin Opera Theatre.
Mr. Mechavich is also known for his deep commitment to American opera. He has conducted productions of Nixon in China by John Adams; Susannah, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, and Cold Sassy Tree by Carlisle Floyd; and Moby-Dick, Great Scott, Out of Darkness, and Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie.
On the concert stage, Maestro Mechavich has appeared with the Florida and Sarasota orchestras; the Naples and Orlando philharmonics; the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra; and the Hartford, Virginia, and Waterbury symphonies
Mr. Mechavich has held the positions of principal conductor for Opera Birmingham, director of music for Orlando Opera, and cover conductor for the Santa Fe Opera. He studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the Yale University School of Music.
Chas Rader-Shieber has directed over 30 productions for the Curtis Opera Theatre. His recent work outside of Philadelphia includes new productions of Grétry’s L’Amant jaloux for Pinchgut Opera, Faust for the Macau International Music Festival, La traviata for Pittsburgh Opera, Così fan tutte for Yale Opera, and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice for Des Moines Metro Opera. His work has been seen at the opera companies of Los Angeles, Washington National Opera, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Houston, Glimmerglass, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver, Staatstheater Darmstadt, the New York City Opera, and the Spoleto Festival, among others.
Having made a specialty of 17th- and 18th-century operas, he has directed Mozart’s Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, Le nozze di Figaro,Don Giovanni, Il re pastore, and Così fan tutte; Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Semele, Ariodante, Acis and Galatea, Imeneo, Alcina, Xerxes, Partenope, Tolomeo, andFlavio; and works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Purcell, Charpentier, and Gluck. Upcoming plans include Ariadne auf Naxos for Kentucky Opera, Rusalka for Des Moines Metro Opera, and Orfeo ed Euridice for Portland Opera.
The Curtis Opera Theatre season is sponsored by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.