Eugene Onegin

Any good work of art is susceptible to more than one interpretation. The program notes to Eugene Onegin were replete with references to Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, who thought that the theme of Eugene Onegin revolves around Tatyana displaying the essential strength and endurance of the ideal Russian woman. Personally, I thought the theme was: dang teenagers.

Opera opens with teenaged sisters Tatyana and Olga sitting around the estate. Olga's boyfriend Lensky, who lives on a neighboring estate, shows up with his friend Onegin (I don't believe the "Eugene" is ever used in the libretto). Tatyana goes off the deep end and falls in love with Onegin at first sight. That night, she pours out her heart in a letter to Onegin, declaring her eternal love and, essentially, proposing marriage. She sends the letter off with one of the estate's errand runners.

Onegin shows up and returns her letter, with the usual lines about "I'm not ready to settle down", and "You really wouldn't be happy with me, or me with you", and, as an additional fillip, "You should be a little more careful who you send these things to - you could be emotionally hurt."

The next day is Tatyana's birthday. Lensky shows up with Onegin in tow. Onegin is not happy. The women lining the walls are gossiping about his bad habits and reputation, and Tatyana has a tendency to burst into tears when she sees him. In a foul mood, he decides to respond foully. He starts flirting with Olga. Both Tatyana and Lensky take exception. He continues to flirt. Lensky's objections eventually escalate to the level of a challenge to a duel.

Next day at dawn. Both protagonists, in asides to the audience, admit that they have behaved badly, and that the duel is a really stupid idea, but cannot bring themselves to apologize. Duel proceeds. Lensky is shot dead.

There appear to be no serious legal repercussions to a fair but fatal duel amongst the gentry, so it is more to flee internal demons than external ones that Onegin decides to take an extended sabbatical in Western Europe. I keep wondering what happened to Olga, but Tchaikowski doesn't say (maybe I should look up the Pushkin from which the libretto was taken).

He returns to Peterbourg years later, and encounters Tatyana at a fancy ball. She is now married, to a general named Gremin (a basso with the best voice in the production). Her manner is modest but firm, and she obviously has the respect of those around her. Gremin goes on at length to his friend Onegin about how happy he is to be married to Tatyana, and how she comforts and supports him. In other words, she is an adult. Not so Onegin. He finds her aplomb and maturity desperately attractive. Despite his friendship with Gremin, he shows up at their place after the ball, and urges Tatyana to leave it all and run away with him. Her first response is along the line of "Why should I take you seriously - you seem to be the same jerk you always were." But he works away at the theme, and eventually brings her to tearfully admit that yes, she still does feel that pang of youthful love she once bore him, but no, she has a man who loves her deeply, and responsibilities to him, and will not betray him. She walks away and leaves him, the jiltee, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Translators have a hard job. Even with my very limited Russian I caught a couple of nuances that don't quite translate. In the quarrel leading up to to duel, in the English libretto, Lensky refers to "Mr. Onegin", which while literal, does not catch the deep contempt conveyed by the use of "Gospodin Onegin" about one who had been a friend. And, at Tatyana's birthday party, the French master sings her a song in French, in which the rhythm of the song compels him to sing "Tat-y-ana", which sounds as reasonable in English as in French, but which must sound very droll to Russian ears, for whom the 'tya' of Tatyana is an indesoluable atom.

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