Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” from Bärenreiter
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” is probably the most frequently-performed Russian opera. But its success was not assured from the outset. Now “Onegin” is being published by Bärenreiter in an edition reflecting the latest state of research, taking into consideration the somewhat complicated history of its composition.
“This opera was written in wholly unusual circumstances. I do not wish to lobby for it to be performed on the grand stage; in general, it does not seemed destined to enjoy great success on the stage, so for this reason I will accept nothing from you for it.”
Thus wrote Pyotr Tchaikovsky shortly before completing the composition on 12/24 January 1878 to his publisher Peter Jürgenson.
For the libretto Tchaikovsky made extensive use of original text fragments from Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse “Eugene Onegin” (Yevgeny Onegin). Whereas central sections such as the Letter Scene could be incorporated almost unaltered as a piece of literature opera, the composer and librettist made free use of Pushkin in other places by selecting text fragments from different contexts and transforming the authorial voice of the poet in the responses of the operatic figures. Tchaikovsky himself ultimately added some text, such as Prince Gremin’s love aria, an aesthetically unsatisfactory circumstance he was naturally aware of, but which he could not avoid.
Despite such additions the work lacked the typical stage effects and the usual historic atmosphere: it directs attention to the inner life of the characters, which necessitated a high ability to empathise on the part of the actors, then unknown in contemporary opera performance. Such an opera seemed totally unsuited to the only Russian opera theatres at the time, the Mariyinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The first performance was entrusted to students from the St Petersburg Conservatory. The staged premiere at the Moscow Malïy Theatre, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein and supervised by a theatre director who created a production unusually close to life with the young performers, was nevertheless highly acclaimed in Russian musical circles.
„Позор! Тоска! О жалкий жребий мой!“ (Shame! Anguish! My life’s happiness is shattered!) – these last words, which Onegin utters to Tatyana’s husband in the final scene of the opera, were extremely important to Tchaikovsky; he entered the corrections in his own copy of the libretto and also in his autograph score, but not in the score which the publisher Peter Jürgenson had already published without the composer’s knowledge. Here, annoyingly, we still find the original version from Tchaikovsky’s autograph – “Woe is me, I am now a slave to death!” – which the composer had considered as a stopgap solution from the beginning.
On the advice of his brother Anatoly, Tchaikovsky then reconsidered the ending of the opera in 1880. In his version, which differed considerably from Pushkin’s novel, Tatyana answers Onegin’s passionate declaration of love with the phrase “I love you”. The following stage direction reads: “Tatyana sinks into Onegin’s arms, agitated by her confession. He embraces her. Then she comes to her senses and quickly frees herself from his embrace.” Tchaikovsky wanted to replace this passage with the direction “Onegin comes closer.” But he did not carry out his intention. However, he did change the final exchange between the two leads: “right at the very end, I changed Tatyana’s words as follows: she will no longer fall and become weak, but will continue to go about her duty; Onegin will not seize her, but instead will simply entreat her. Then, instead of “I am dying!”, Tatyana will say “Farewell for ever!” and will disappear, and he, after several moments of shock, will say the final words. The General must not appear.”
The last remark is particularly important: Tatyana’s husband “General” Gremin surprises the lovers in the last bars of the first version of the opera. This visual intensification of the triangular conflict was given up by the composer even by the first official performance of the work, which took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1881. And so the alterations in the final form were formulated, which the composer codified in the second revised printed edition of the score (Moscow 1891).
The reforms at the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg, which were implemented following the accession of Tsar Alexander III, created new kinds of performance conditions for Tchaikovsky. The Russian opera troupe was the focus of these reforms: it moved to the prestigious Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg, which the Italian opera company had to vacate. The nobility in the capital now began to attend Russian opera performances. The Tsar personally also wanted to see Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in St Petersburg. Great efforts were made to capture the spirit of the work in a historically sensitive production. At the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg “Eugene Onegin” became an opera which presented images from the life of the Russian aristocracy in an emblematic way on the stage. With 22 performances the work achieved great success in the 1884/85 season, such as had never before been encountered in Russian opera.
The desire to give the opera even more splendour had the consequence that in August 1885, the Petersburg Ball in Act 3, scene 1 was enhanced not only with new costumes and scenery, but also with new dance numbers in which the Imperial Ballet could demonstrate its abilities. Tchaikovsky immediately composed the desired music. And the first performance with the new Ecossaise, divided between numbers 20 and 21 and heralding the encounter between Onegin and Gremin, took place as early as 19 September/1 October 1885. And with this, the opera had arrived at its final form. It was now necessary to record the alterations in the printed edition too. But it was not only the new dance sections and the altered version of the final exchanges which were included in the second edition of the score, published in 1891. As the score published in 1880 was produced without the composer’s involvement and was full of mistakes, this had to be thoroughly revised once more.
After the disbandment of the imperial Italian opera troupe in February 1886, the Russian troupe returned from the Bolshoi Theatre to the Mariyinsky Theatre, where it has remained to this day. There, too, “Eugene Onegin” was once again in the repertoire. In 1892 the work reached its 100th performance, something which had only previously been achieved in Russia by Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar”. Exemplary of its kind, the St Petersburg production served as a model for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, where in 1889 a new “Onegin” was created with more elaborate costumes and scenery. On 18/30 September 1889 Tchaikovsky himself conducted the 51st Moscow performance of the work here. With performances in Prague (1888) and in Hamburg (1892) conducted by Gustav Mahler, the “lyric scenes” began their triumphal conquest of the world’s stages even during the composer’s lifetime.
About this edition
The new edition finally clears up the many mistakes and inconsistencies in the previous editions of the score. It follows the 1885 St Petersburg version which can be regarded as the final authorised version since Tchaikovsky prepared it for the second edition of the score published by Jürgenson in 1891. For this, he thoroughly revised the dynamic and tempo indications and provided metronome markings; including the Ecossaises nos. 20–21 in the third act. In addition, the autograph which is preserved in the Glinka Museum has been consulted. The performance material from the Mariyinsky Theatre had previously been thought to be lost. It was only in autumn 2021 that it was rediscovered in the Archive of the St Petersburg Michailowski Theatre and an overview of it presented at a conference. The material is based on the St Petersburg performance of 1884 and contains the alterations made in 1885.
The score published by Bärenreiter-Verlag carefully modernises the text of the main source with regard to orthography and punctuation. For international use, the score is underlaid with Cyrillic and a standardised transcription in Latin letters, together with a new German translation by Peter Brenner which closely follows the rhythm of the original version, at the same time remaining as close as possible to the meaning. The score has a detailed foreword on the genesis and reception of the work in three languages, and a separately printed libretto follows the text underlaid in the score. A vocal score and orchestral parts are in preparation and will shortly be available on hire.