Eugene Onégin (Евге́ний Оне́гин)


Just came back after watching Tchaikovsky’s lyrical opera Eugene Onégin (Yevgény Onégin). It was another great experience offered to opera lovers all over the world the simulcast of the Metropolitan Opera. It is said that several hundred thousand people watch these simulcasts in dozens of countries. What a wonderful way of sharing something positive in our messed-up world of hate and conflicts!

I had read Pushkin’s poetically composed story a few years ago, about a haughty young man (Eugene) who stirred up the heart of the young Tatyana (Tatiana). The shy and timid Tatyana wrote a love-letter to the charming young man. But he rebuffed her youthful love and preached to her that she shouldn’t let her heart loose that way. Then, he flirts with Tatyana’s sister Olga who had a male lover Lenski, a sentimental poet, though the latter was his good friend from their boyhood days. This infuriated Lenski who challenged Eugene to a duel in which Eugene sot dead his friend.

After this unfortunate incident the hero left the village, only to lead a restless and wandering life. Eventually he goes to a ball in the palace of a nobleman (Prince Gremin) in St. Petersburg. Here he discovers that the once village-girl Tatyana is now married to the noble man. He is attracted to her with great passion, and tried to win her back, but in vain. Though she still has remnants of her earlier love for him, she refuses to break her marital promise and come to Onégin.

       Pushkin described his hero thus:

Eugene, of course, had keen perceptions
And on the whole despised mankind,
Yet wasn’t, like so many, blind;
And since each rule permits exceptions,
He did respect a noble few,
And, cold himself, gave warmth its due.

Onégin may not be a great hero, nor a great story, as plots go, but the poetry of Pushkin (which, I understand, is magnificent in the Original Russian) is also enjoyable in its English translation by Henry Spalding. Moreover, it tells the now all too common predicament of young men who postpone proposing to a woman when they are in their youthful phase, and end up regretting when they are in their middle age. But then, this too will pass as the institution of marriage is slowly disappearing in many countries.

More importantly, the musical-dramatic version by Tchaikovsky is surely among the great operas of the world. I had seen it performed superbly with Renée Fleming as Tatyana, and this one with Anna Netrebko was no less delightful, and with more stage décor. Most arias were long, all quite serious – except for the French poem recited with a not very French accent chanting brillez toujours!- often eliciting well-deserved long applause

I am glad that I took a year’s course in Russian at the Institut des Langues Orientales in Paris in 1957. Though, due to lack of practice, I have lost much of what I had learned, a good many words and phrases came back to mind beyond niet (no), bozheh moi (oh my God) , and kuda (to where?). 

The cast, as always with the Met, was superb: Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien sang beautifully as Tatyana and Onégin, while  Piotr Beczala played Lenski.  The conductor Valery Gregiev showed all the mastery and love for the work that one would expect in this context from a maestro of his cultural and linguistic background.

It is not widely known that Tchaikovsky himself had had a similar experience of receiving a love-lorn letter from an admiring woman whom he rejected.

October 5, 2013

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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