Conductor Notes | Eugene Onegin

Apr 7, 2022

Some Personal Thoughts on Eugene Onegin

What a privilege it is for me, in my role as a conductor, to expend my meager intellectual and aesthetic resources in a joyful quest to explore the innumerable beauties and inspirations to be found in operatic masterpieces. Particularly precious are the treasures I find in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

It goes without saying that the vast number of successful operas could be said to be “poetic.” Indeed, the mystical union of poetry and music that creates “lyric expression” is an inviolable marriage that defines the very nature of opera itself. But Eugene Onegin is unique in the degree to which poetry pervades not only the dramatic content but also the technical compositional details of the opera.

At first, Tchaikovsky was hesitant when, in 1876, friends suggested the idea of adapting Pushkin’s great poetic novel to operatic treatment. The story was short on dramatic action, relying mainly on mood, atmosphere and conversational encounters between the various characters. But soon the composer realized that this “everyday story” presented him with an opportunity to create something that lay outside the expectations of convention. Writing to his brother in 1877, he said, “How glad I am to be rid of Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings, and stilted effects of all kinds. What a mine of poetry there is in Onegin”.

Recognizing that a seamless plot was not something he could rely on to carry the day in this bold endeavor, Tchaikovsky hedged his bet by calling his new work “Lyric Scenes” rather than an opera. But he compensated with complete and brilliant efficacy by creating with his music a tinta—an atmospheric coloring—that uniquely captures the emotional climate of every passing moment in the opera. It is an achievement in this regard that strikes me as commensurate with Verdi’s Don Carlos and Massenet’s Werther. And Tchaikovsky took delight in his accomplishment: “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.”

With the help of his friend, Konstantin Shilovsky, Tchaikovsky adapted Pushkin’s original text by employing the great poet’s own metrical scheme wherever possible. Pushkin’s iambic tetrameter (as in, from Tatyana’s great letter scene, “I write to you—what more is needed? This said, have I not said enough?") governs the conversational flow throughout the opera, but never becomes forced, square or predictable. Of astounding artistic inspiration is his use of the same rhythmic dynamic in music that has no text. The ascending line in the oboe that so magically and hopefully announces the beginning of Tatyana’s great aria proper is rendered in exact iambic tetrameter, followed by four individual iambs that drop directly into our hearts by virtue of solo flute, clarinet, horn and harp. This is musical poetry of matchless integrity and subtle effectiveness.

And, speaking of Tatyana, is there any operatic character who compels our love and respect more sincerely? I think she’s my favorite female character in all of opera. Not only is she a noble human being without guile who, in the vulnerability of her youth, has the courage and strength to reveal her heart without pretense, she also proves to be a woman who eschews bitterness and upholds her commitment to the very end. Acknowledging the longings of her heart, she nevertheless remains true to her complete self. Tchaikovsky lavishes Tatyana with music that runs the full gamut of human expression—utter tenderness, profound passion, joy and despair.

Onegin himself is also treated with great specificity by Tchaikovsky, who makes clear his relative disdain for the title character. Perhaps Richard Strauss could have met the challenge admirably, but I find it difficult to imagine how nearly any other composer could have so captured the cynical, dismissive, sometimes dandy-ish condescending aloofness that pervades Onegin’s demeanor. Through musical choices that support the dramatic circumstances, Tchaikovsky underlines and lays bare Onegin’s pathetic weakness in the end. While Onegin pleads with Tatyana, the composer sets his protestations to the music of Tatyana’s original confession of love all the way back in the letter scene. It’s one of the greatest moments of “what goes around, comes around,” made particularly searing by Tchaikovsky’s unfailing dramatic instinct.

I can’t leave this stream-of-consciousness essay without mentioning the deeply satisfying and soul-enriching beauties of the orchestral writing in this great opera. If Tchaikovsky had never written a single opera, his music would still retain the reputation for being “dramatic.” His symphonies, ballets, concertos—indeed, all of his music wears its emotion on the sleeves. In Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky employs his skills as a “tone poet” to masterful effect. In the various preludes that begin the scenes and in the musical flow of the drama, it’s almost as if the orchestra has taken up the role of the nameless narrator in Pushkin’s original. The string writing, in particular, is beyond sumptuous, throbbing with emotional immediacy. And I can’t think of another opera in which the cello section has such a consistently rich and prominent role from beginning to end.

These are but a tiny handful of the riches that are to be found in Eugene Onegin. I find that this opera challenges me in ways that go far beyond those that one would normally associate with conducting a great piece of music. Tchaikovsky and Pushkin have given to us one of opera’s most beautiful mirrors with which to examine ourselves and our world.

— Steven White

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