Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as is well known, is not a poem but a novel in verse. Tchaikovsky, too, gave his Onegin an unusual genre definition: not an “opera” but “lyrical scenes”. From an “encyclopaedia of Russian life” the composer selected the principal line of the plot, the one that was closest to himself as a lyrical artist. Though naming only one character in the title, Tchaikovsky subsequently went on to reveal the souls of three people to the audience: Tatiana (Act I), Lensky (Act II) and Onegin (Act III). In all three characters Tchaikovsky saw something of a reflection of his own self, and even Tatiana’s famous letter scene rhymes with an episode lifted from the life of the composer, who wrote the scene plan of the emergent opera in one night. The “lyrical scenes” were completed in 1878, having been begun in 1877, and one year earlier still Tchaikovsky had attended the opening of the Wagnerian theatre in Bayreuth. Regardless of all the anti-Wagnerian instincts of the Russian composer, his attention was also drawn to the inner “I”, the events played out in the drama being reduced to a minimum. Each elegiac breath taken by the orchestra, beginning with “Tatiana’s sequence” in the introduction, conveys the most incredibly subtle movements of the human soul. Following in Wagner’s footsteps, Tchaikovsky made use of leitmotifs – these being first and foremost neither heroes nor objects but rather emotions. And this is why Tatiana’s music sounds so natural both in the scenes with Lensky, and in the scenes with Onegin who has been transformed by love. The music historian Boris Asafiev appropriately called Eugene Onegin a “musical poem”. Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, this is a “symphonic poem” of seven tableaux or chapters, a poem about hopes and their destruction, about love, about a happiness which “had been so possible, so close”. Eugene Onegin, performed at the historic Mariinsky Theatre, is a perfect example of the cultivation of musical and theatrical “soil” and was, in its day, awarded the State Prize of the USSR. The premiere of the production took place in 1982 at the theatre then still known as the Kirov. At the time the post of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the theatre was held by Yuri Temirkanov. Onegin was his child, moreover not merely with regard to the music: here the conductor also made his mark as a stage director. Being both the conductor and director of a production at the same time is a complex and demanding task, because “you have to consider what is happening in the orchestra, as well as building the production musically; like it or not, you are on the stage all the time, because each movement is something that you yourself have experienced” (from an interview with Yuri Temirkanov). The first Lensky of the legendary production, Yuri Marusin, recalled that the conductor-director personally showed the singers the plastique he desired, the gestures and the poses, creating an unbroken link between the audible and the visible, between the orchestra pit and the stage. The production was designed by Igor Ivanov, who in 1981 held the post of the theatre’s Principal Designer. Striving for historic realism, the set designer reproduced in detail Russian life in the first quarter of the 19th century. Anyone who has been to places connected with Pushkin in the Pskov Region will easily recognise the manor house with the semi-circular window and portico, as well as Onegin’s bench. The interior of Tatiana’s room is a quotation from Roman Tikhomirov’s opera film (1958). The “rich mansion in St Petersburg” in Act III recalls to mind the severe magnificence of the White Columned Hall in the Noble Assembly. And Ivanov’s set designs are far from being mere beautiful illustrations. In the final scene of Tatiana and Onegin’s explanations, behind these characters there is an immense longcase clock, indicating their principal foe – time which, once lost, knows no mercy.
Natural and harmonious in all its component parts, Temirkanov’s ground-breaking Eugene Onegin not only appeals to the Russian “cultural code” – it is such masterpieces as this that shape it. Khristina Batyushina