If Jane Austen ever wrote an opera libretto, it would probably have turned out something like Onegin. Very sympathetic, but at the same time, clear-sighted. It zips along in a sequence of concise scenes, each of which makes its point, very like her novels.
Even the setting and characters were Austenesque: a respectable widow and her two eligible daughters in the country, getting disrupted by the arrival of two attractive bachelors. Tatiana is dreamy, romantic Russian Marianne Dashwood, and Olga is a very silly Lydia Bennett. Lensky is a poet cousin of Mr. Bingley. Eugene himself is a mix of Mr. Darcy and Wickham.
On the other hand, JA would never countenance Lensky’s death. And she would have disapproved of Tatiana writing a love letter to Eugene, but would have certainly appreciated the dramatic impact that Tchaikovsky extracts from it.
It's a full-blown grand opera, but at the same time is something very different: an opera that ends with the heroine admitting that she loves the hero, but then tells him to please go away. And then she leaves him. The end.
Tatiana and Eugene suffer—Tchaikowsky makes that unmistakable—but their sufferings are not presented, as in Wagner, as part of the cosmic scheme of things. Nor are they presented, as in Puccini, as the intensity that makes life worthwhile. The failure of Tatiana and Eugene to find happiness with each other is presented as the result of bad judgement, vanity and inexperience—all the ordinary, everyday evils. There is nothing supernatural or mythic at work here. Just the frustration of things not working out.
This music was all new to me. Shaw complained that Tchaikovsky had “a thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all.” But here there is a clear dramatic point to everything, and the music puts you in the thick of it. Besides Tatiana’s letter, there was Lensky’s farewell aria and Prince Gremin’s deep-voiced praise of love.
It sounded great, but the production was not ideal. The principals were miscast. Even given the latitude traditionally permitted opera, Oksana Dyka—a tall, imposing Amazon—couldn’t have been Tatiana’s second cousin; and Dalibor Jenis was impossible to see as a dashing romantic young man. Their costumes exaggerated their inappropriateness in a way that was baffling.
The sets were a bit too clever. While I would never object to seeing Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s famous 1836 male nude, did Mama Larina really devote a whole wall of her house to a reproduction of it?
And though I liked Tatian’s funny half-ellipse nook of a room, after a few splashes I got sick of the giant swimming pool dominating most of the stage. Accomodating these things led to Tatiana’s birthday party—a big, crowded, noisy spectacle—being squeezed onto just the front half of the stage. It looked like castmembers were in danger of tipping over into the orchestra.
Worst of all, the desire to create a spooky Caspar David Friedrich effect at the start of Act 3 spoiled Tchaikovsky’s brilliant dramatic effect of ending Act 2 with the sorrowful music of Lensky’s death and beginning Act 3 with the loud, happy music of Prince Gemin’s party.
I know the Puskin fanatics dislike the opera as a dumbing-down of their hero’s polyphonic masterpiece. Very likely. But the result is admirable.