Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 – 1837) is considered by many to be the greatest of all Russian writers. His novella The Queen of Spades (which, like Onegin, was made into an opera by Tchaikovsky) set the gold standard for Russian prose. As for his poetry, it comes as close to music as mere language ever can. It is often said that one should learn Russian simply in order to read Pushkin in the original.
Pushkin’s classic novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is one of the monuments of world literature. It tells the story of a wealthy, idle, and aloof young man (Onegin) who breaks the heart of a naive young woman (Tatiana), kills his best friend (Lensky) in a duel that he himself needlessly provoked, and ultimately falls hopelessly in love with Tatiana after she has married and become a great lady. There are far too many remarkable things in Eugene Onegin to mention in this brief introduction. Suffice it to say that it occupies a commanding place in the Russian literary landscape.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in some respects, was to Russian music what Pushkin was to Russian literature. He was the first Russian composer to bridge the gap between his native musical traditions and the wider musical world of Western Europe. One could say that he wrote Russian music like a Westerner, and Western music like a Russian. His masterpieces include symphonies, concertos, chamber music, ballets, and operas.
Tchaikovky’s opera Eugene Onegin distills the essence of Pushkin’s novel and transforms it into intoxicating music. The central story of the novel is presented faithfully, with much of the original verse incorporated verbatim in the libretto. Earthy peasant choruses, glittering waltzes, passionate arias, and dramatic duets abound in this splendid outpouring of two great Russian artistic geniuses. According to Kobbé’s Opera Book, Eugene Onegin is “one of the great romantic masterpieces yet achieved within the operatic form.”
Here is a video introduction to the story and music of Eugene Onegin (3.20 minutes).
These excerpts are from a February 2007 Metropolitan Opera performance, with Renée Fleming as Tatiana, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Ramón Vargas as Lensky, and Sergei Aleksashkin as Gremin. Valery Gergiev conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The performance is available on DVD from Decca.