A musical synopsis with Alain Altinoglu
A love story that is not actually a love story, spleen and ennui, grand balls, passionate impulses, a duel in the mist and intoxicating melodies... All the ingredients of a real Tchaikovsky masterpiece. Read the synopsis of Yevgeny Onegin here, along with a selection of the opera's musical highlights provided and discussed by conductor Alain Altinoglu.
A country house. A garden. Mrs Larina, her governess Filippyevna and her two daughters, Tatyana and Olga, can hear a group of peasants singing joyfully. Tatyana is engrossed in a romantic novel, but her mother tells her that real life is very different. The ladies are visited by Lensky, Olga's fiancé, a young poet, accompanied by his new friend Eugene Onegin, a nobleman who from St. Petersburg. After the usual introductions, the latter expresses his surprise to Lensky about his choice of sister. Tatyana, on the other hand, immediately falls under Onegin's spell. That evening she writes him a passionate letter in which she declares he is the man she is destined to be with.
Shortly afterwards, Onegin visits Tatyana to respond to her letter. He explains that he is not a man who loves easily, nor is he the marrying kind. Crushed, the young woman is unable to answer.
Alain Altinoglu — Of all the Russian composers, Tchaikovsky was the one who wished to be the most Western, drawing inspiration from great predecessors such as Mozart, whom he adored. This is apparent in the way his music remains faithful to the classical structures — sometimes to the extreme, as if he attempted to be more Catholic than the Pope. Yet, everything flows organically from there, and touches you directly. He is less innovative than Wagner but I think he just wanted to get closer to a form of purity. Therefore, his complexity does not come specifically from harmony or rhythm. If you take his ballets, for instance, the structures are rather simplistic, which make them much easier for the audience to grasp. This structural clarity also comes from the fact that he knew full well that a dancer counts up to 'eight and'. But those same ballets also offer magnificent melodies and orchestral innovations: the intervention of a celesta or a children's choir, extraordinary solos for violin that engages in dialogue with the dancer. And then, like all great composers, he developed an immediately recognisable style. When you hear his music, you always think "ah, that's Tchaikovsky".
A ball has been organised at the Larina home for Tatyana's birthday. Onegin, irritated by Lensky, who convinced him to come, and by the locals gossiping about his relationship with Tatyana, decides to take revenge by dancing and flirting with Olga. This makes Lensky jealous. Apparently seduced, Olga is unimpressed by her fiancé's complaints. A French guest, Monsieur Triquet, sings a few couplets in honour of Tatyana.
The quarrel resumes and escalates. Lensky publicly renounces his friendship with Onegin and, to the astonishment of the guests, challenges him to a duel. Despite his reluctance, Onegin is forced to accept. At dawn, on the banks of a stream in the woods, Lensky sings of his love for Olga and his uncertain fate.
Onegin arrives. Face to face, they are armed with pistols. Both men are reluctant to go ahead with the duel, but neither has the courage to stop it. They shoot. Lensky collapses and dies.
A few years later, at a ball in the house of a wealthy St Petersburg nobleman, Onegin is consumed by the death of his friend and the emptiness of his life. Prince Gremin enters with his wife, Tatyana. When he sees her again, Onegin is captivated by the young woman's transformation and is suddenly driven by the desire to win back his love. He writes her a letter begging her to return his love. Tatyana does not understand what drives this passion: her wealth, her social status? When they are alone together, Onegin ardently renews his declaration. Tatyana, with tears in her eyes, reminds him how close they had come to happiness, but asks him to leave. He refuses. She admits to still loving him, but chooses to remain faithful to her husband. Onegin pleads with her one last time, but to no avail. Tatyana leaves him, alone with his despair...