Eugene Onegin: A Lesser-Known Russian Opera by Tchaikovsky

Warning: plot spoilers for the opera Eugene Onegin ahead!

For the past five years, I’ve made it an annual tradition to attend the Seattle Opera. While I may go twice this year—Puccini’s La Bohème, coming in May, will be hard to resist—my first opera of 2020 was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on the Alexander Pushkin novel of the same name.

Tchaikovsky, most known for his timeless compositions The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, had long held my admiration for these works, but I must admit that I was completely unfamiliar with Onegin despite my interest in opera. I finally read the synopsis while browsing this season’s offerings and felt compelled to see it.

Photo by Philip Newton

Have you heard the song of love and sorrow?

And so begins the Russian opera; that first line foretells the sad relationship between Tatyana and Eugene. The young woman falls for him almost instantly. In what is arguably the prettiest aria in Onegin, Tatyana (sung by Marjukka Tepponen), sings aloud her love letter, in all its vulnerability and sincerity and innocence. The longer we see her writing on stage, the more we learn of the depth of her feelings.

Photo by Philip Newton

You’re my dream, my one desire, my joy, and suffering.

But soon, Eugene, (sung by John Moore), rejects her pure love, rebuffing her advances carelessly. He finally comes to his senses years later as they reunite but it is too late—she has moved on. Onegin is a classic tale of “the one that got away” before we had adopted the saying into our modern vernacular.

Tell me, dear maiden, that you will shed a tear over my urn and think, “He loved me.”

Your perfection is wasted…I am unworthy of you.

I’m waiting for you, my one desire, my love.

I beg you, don’t go! I love you.

I love you, I love you.

The opera is filled with notable lines, which is unsurprising considering Pushkin’s poetic enterprises. Even the original Eugene Onegin novel was written in verse. I had gone there expecting to scribble notes inside my program—this is what I do when I write a review; I always seem to forget my notepad—but I did not expect to copy down a mini-libretto in my seat. I couldn’t help it though; some of the lyrics were just so beautifully sad.

The lachrymose ending is well paired with some moments of levity throughout the play with the help of minor characters, as well as a subplot that results in an unexpected duel. The orchestral accompaniment also lends to its strength. 

Photo by Philip Newton

For all its charm though, Onegin did not captivate me the way that some other operas have. The first act (of three) is slower-paced, and it took a bit of time for me to get into the work. And the set was clearly executed with talent but felt too austere in appearance. I would not necessarily recommend this production for a first-timer. There are better operas, I think, to introduce someone to the genre. Nevertheless, it is entertaining and worth seeing. 

Moreover, many of us can relate to being too immature or too afraid to act on true love. The problem is, there is no currency in existence that can buy us as much time on earth as we would like. The lesson of Eugene Onegin is not to be a fool, but to recognize true love when it is staring you in the face, to go after it, and to cleave to it. 

Shame, anguish! Oh, my miserable fate.

 And so the opera ends.

Photo by Philip Newton

Eugene Onegin played at the Seattle Opera until Jan. 25th, 2020, See what is playing next at the Seattle Opera

Danielle Hayden is a freelance writer and proofreader. When not surrounded by words, she enjoys watching films (note: the book is almost always better), learning new things, and attending cool events around the city. 

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