Russians know Eugene Onegin the way Americans know Huckleberry Finn. Just as Huck exists on the page and on the stage and screen, so does Onegin. Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin, debuted in Moscow in 1879 to an audience likely already familiar with the story from the Alexander Pushkin novel.

Eugene Onegin is a novel written in verse; it reads more like a poem than a novel. Almost the entire work is comprised of 14-line stanzas – nearly 400 of them! – of iambic tetrameter with the unusual rhyme scheme AB-AB-CC-DD-EFF-EGG. This form has come to be known as the “Onegin stanza” or “Pushkin sonnet.”

Onegin is considered a classic of Russian literature. “On its publication in 1831, the Onegin poem quickly acquired iconic status, and Pushkin became revered as the first authentically great Russian writer,” wrote Andrew Clements in The Guardian in 2006. “Distilling a libretto from such a familiar work was not an easy task.”

Tchaikovsky’s libretto closely follows Pushkin’s novel and retains much of its poetry. He wrote that, when he had the idea to turn it into an opera, he read the poem “over again with rapture and passed a sleepless night, of which the result was a charming plot with words from Pushkin.”

Onegin deals with unrequited love and class differences. (There’s a death, too – so it’s doubly tragic.)

The main characters, the aristocratic Onegin and the common, bookish Tatyana, meet when she’s young and naïve. He rejects her, but when they encounter each other years later, the tables have turned.

And, literature plays a role in the plot. Tatyana, the ingenue, is reading a romance novel when we first see her. In a moment that foreshadows the tragic ending, her mother warns her real life is not a fairy tale.  

While the opera is based on a work of fiction, we can’t ignore what was going on in Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he was composing it. He was extricating himself from a brief, bad and ill-considered marriage – meant to hide his homosexuality.

In both the play and the opera, Onegin spends five years adrift, disillusioned with life. One evening, he’s at a black-tie gala. A princess arrives, and Onegin realizes it’s Tatyana. She has settled for a conventional marriage with a man she respects and honors but doesn’t love as she loves Onegin. And Onegin is forced to recognize he has only himself to blame.

Article written by Page Leggett