The Story of 'Eugene Onegin'
Tchaikovsky's opera has three acts, divided into what the composer called "Lyric Scenes." ACT ONE begins at a country home. Tatyana and her sister Olga are singing a duet, while their mother and the maid reminisce about courtship and marriage.
As farm workers bring in the last of the harvest, there's a chorus and a dance. A neighbor called Lensky shows up with a friend named Eugene Onegin. Onegin's eye is on Tatyana, and he doesn't understand why Lensky has fallen for her less interesting sister, Olga.
Tatyana falls for Onegin almost immediately, and thinks her wait for Mr. Right has just ended. As the two couples pair off, Lensky sings of his love for Olga, while Onegin quizzes Tatyana about the limitations of life in the country.
Later that night, Tatyana is in her room with the maid Filipyevna. She admits that she's obsessed by her passion for Onegin. She asks for pen and paper, and wants to be left alone to compose a letter to Onegin, confessing her love. It's a long scene, filled with emotions — a tour de force for the soprano, both musically and dramatically. As she finishes writing, she knows that she may have revealed herself too fully. Still, when Filipyevna returns the next morning, Tatyana makes her promise to mail the letter immediately.
A few days later, Onegin arrives at the house with his reply. The news is bad. In the garden, he tells Tatyana that he was touched by her letter, but he can only love her like a sister; he's not cut out for commitment. And besides, he says, she should learn to control her feelings a little better. Tatyana is devastated, and the act ends quietly, as her friends try to comfort her while they escort her home.
ACT TWO begins in Tatyana's house, where a party is being thrown for her name day. Onegin and Lensky are both there, along with a local military captain, and other guests. Onegin is bored. So for his own entertainment, he flirts with Olga — Lensky's girlfriend — and asks her to dance. The Frenchman Triquet sings a few verses he's composed in honor of Tatyana, while Onegin continues dancing with Olga.
Naturally, Lensky is unhappy with Onegin's obvious attentions to Olga. As he watches the two together, he grows more and more jealous by the minute. Suddenly, he loses it. Lensky denounces Onegin and says a fateful goodbye to Olga. Then, to everyone's surprise, he challenges Onegin to a duel: pistols at dawn, by the river.
The next day, just after sunrise, Lensky is ready — standing in the bitter cold, by the water mill. He and his second, Zaretsky, are waiting for Onegin. In the interlude, Lensky sings one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful arias. Resigned to the possibility that things might go badly, he longs for old days and hopes Olga will remember him.
Onegin finally shows up, apologizing nonchalantly for being late. The seconds mark off the paces, and a pistol shot rings out. Lensky falls dead, leaving Onegin amazed that he has just killed his good friend.
ACT THREE takes place in St. Petersburg, five years after the duel. Since then, Onegin has spent his time drifting, disillusioned with his life and haunted by Lensky's death. One day, he finds himself at a black-tie gala. When the arrival of a princess is announced, Onegin realizes that he's seen the woman before. It's Tatyana, and she's obviously done well — making her appearance in an extravagant gown and with a nobleman on her arm.
Her husband, Prince Gremin, introduces his wife to Onegin by singing of his deep love for her. Tatyana and Gremin excuse themselves and leave, as Onegin realizes that he's now fallen in love with the woman he once rejected.
The opera ends with a powerful scene between Tatyana and Onegin. He's come to her home, and this time, it's Onegin who confesses his love. She says he's only interested in her now because she's wealthy. He denies it. She remembers how close they were to happiness. Then finally, she admits she that does still love him. They embrace, but Tatyana pulls back. Her fate has been decided, she says. She's a married woman, and Onegin must leave. He begs to stay with her, but she turns her back and walks out of the room, as Onegin cries out in misery.
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