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Blog entries posted during May 2012

The story of “Dulce Rosa”


 
Based on the short story “Una Venganza” by Chilean author Isabel Allende (above), Dulce Rosa is a tale of romance and ruin, of revenge and redemption. In a South American country, in the early 1950s, times are troubled. Former Senator Orellano is the only leader who could unite the land, but he intends to stay in retirement, on his country estate, with his beloved daughter Rosa. In the jungle, in the Capital City, plots are woven, alliances are forged, and the fate of the House of Orellano is sealed. Led by the notorious outlaw, Tadeo Cespedes, the raiders attack at night. Wounded, Orellano comes to kill Rosa, who is hidden in the family chapel, because he knows what they will do to her. As does she. But Rosa is a true Orellano, her father’s daughter. She pleads for her life. “I can take it, whatever happens. Let me live, and I will avenge you.” Orellano dies as the raiders burst in. Tadeo saves Rosa from his men. But only for himself.
 
From the depths of her despair, as she recovers from her ordeal, Rosa summons the strength to step into her father’s shoes. In the Capital City, at the side of the new President whom he helped to power, General Tadeo Cespedes cannot forget the girl in the chapel, and what he did to her. Rosa haunts his waking hours, his sleepless nights.
 
Over the months in which the Orellano hacienda re-emerges from its ashes, Rosa calls Tadeo to her. He has no choice but to return to her for the merciful bullet. But Rosa’s obsession with Tadeo has changed her. She discovers that she does not hate him. The unthinkable has happened. Appalled, uncomprehending why God has punished her in this way, Rosa comes to see the truth, when she realizes with sudden clarity that she has forgiven the unforgivable. Her love for Tadeo is not a punishment for her pride, but a reward for her suffering. Fate, though, is implacable, and death takes Rosa from Tadeo forever, before they can even begin to understand the wholly unexpected happiness that lies before them.


To Youth: With Memories, Regrets, And Love

By Mary Jane Matz
 
At the end of January in 1893, Giacomo Puccini, then 34 years old, was still a struggling composer, still hoping for a hit. Neither of his first two operas had become popular, but he had hopes for the future; and they were fully realized a few days later with the triumphant world premiere of Manon Lescaut. It made him famous almost overnight, boosted by the popularity of opera at the time. Within a week, Puccini was planning La Bohème.
 
The Source of the Opera
For the third time, Puccini chose a French story as his source, which is not surprising, since he always had an international eye and a broad point of view. After all, he traveled extensively all over Europe and visited South America once and New York twice and took side trips to places like Malta and Egypt! As for his operas, most were not based on Italian sources. In addition to his first three “French” works, he used French subjects for Tosca, taken from Victorien Sardou’s melodrama, and Il Tabarro, from a play about bargemen on the Seine. With its strong Grand Guignol underpinnings, it exuded French local color. From the American cultural scene he used plays by David Belasco, a Broadway producer who wrote Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. It became Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Next came La Rondine, with its origins in Vienna. Beyond all this, Puccini admired Richard Wagner and actually saw Wagner operas in Bayreuth. In sum, he was never a purely “Italian” composer. That was something the Italian critics could never forgive, so they often railed at him for not being “national” enough and not hewing to Italian practice. None of the criticism mattered, for early and late Puccini paid no attention at all.
 
So it was that in 1893 he became interested in Henri Mürger’s popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, a series of little stories about Latin Quarter artists, their poverty, and their loves. Having first published these very personal accounts in installments in a French periodical, Mürger had then made them into a play and a novel. Puccini used both for his opera.
 
Creating La BohèmeTo transform this French material into a libretto, the composer turned first to Luigi Illica, one of several men who had collaborated with him in the problem-ridden development of Manon Lescaut. It had been nothing short of chaotic, with six or even seven people writing a text, and Puccini rejecting one act, one scene or one line after another. In the end the libretto of Manon Lescaut had to be published with no one listed as its author. But the hot-headed Illica could meet Puccini head-to-head, however demanding the composer might be.
 
From 1893 to 1896, Illica worked steadily on the project with the composer and with Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher who was Puccini’s mentor and sponsor. The first step: Illica wrote a scenario and then a drama based on the original play and novel. The poetic lines (required at that time by operatic convention) were then created by a revered poet-playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, with Puccini and Ricordi adding their contributions to the text. This “four-man team” met often to discuss the work, batting around ideas and introducing new characters or new scenes. They also removed things that did not work, and Puccini even cut out one whole act! It was a process, not a single, lightning-flash act of creation. This same team of Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, and Ricordi later created Tosca and Madama Butterfly, which later joined La Bohème to make up the “trilogy” of Puccini’s most popular operas.
 
Puccini’s Bohemian Life in Milan and Tuscany
La Bohème became a window on the Left Bank culture of Paris, but it also opened windows on Puccini’s own life-experience. First it reflected what he had survived as an impoverished composer in the 1880s and early 1890s. “Miseria!” he would gripe in letters to his sister. So in the libretto, when the poet Rodolfo described the wretched conditions in his flat, Puccini could write about something he had actually lived through.
 
For years he rented cheap furnished rooms or tiny apartments, most in desperate condition. He pawned personal things, then had to ask his sister for money to get them out of hock. In the freezing winters of Northern Italy, he often had no heat. Nor was there enough money for a decent meal. In fact, we know what he ate: a couple of helpings of soup, with bread, cheese and wine; a simple plate of Tuscan beans and onions with bread and wine; or fried eggs, cooked on a spirit stove that he perched on top of his upright piano. Once when friends dropped in, Puccini and his mistress and his brother (all crowded into two or three rooms) had to sell and trade household items to scrape together enough money for grungy meat to make a stew!
 
Nor was all that miseria left behind in Milan. Parts of Manon Lescaut and most of La Bohème were written in Puccini’s bare-bones lodgings in Torre del Lago, a raw and primitive fishing village on a lake in Tuscany. On the day he moved in, all his possessions could fit on a single donkey-cart; and his mistress said, “We don’t have enough to eat!”

  Among the fishermen and their families in Torre del Lago were several young artists who soon became Puccini’s friends. Together they hunted, fished, drank, ate, staged mock heroic battles, dressed up in sheets and acted like ancient Romans, and played cards — tresette and scopa and briscola. Their refuge and sanctuary was a wooden hut roofed with dried reeds from the lake. They called it their Club la Bohème, and their antics and shared life certainly provided Puccini with material for his depiction of the artists in La Bohème. Three of these men were even identified with three of the principal male characters in the opera.
 
One of them, Ferruccio Pagni, who was closer to Puccini than the others, wrote later that when Puccini finished La Bohème, they were all together, for he often composed at night, with people talking or playing cards as he worked. On that occasion, Pagni said, Puccini was “just writing the last bars [of the opera]” while he and their cronies played cards nearby.

  “Be quiet, boys!” Puccini said. “I have finished!” Pagni and the others got up from the table and went over to the piano. “Now I’ll let you hear it. . . . This ending is good.” And he started to play Mimì’s last lines: “Sono andati.” As he played on and sang the words, Pagni said, they all had a sensation of “the eternal substance: Sorrow.” At the end, they were all crying.
 
So Puccini never had to invent any “Bohemian life.” These descriptions of his years in Milan and Torre del Lago come from real letters — Puccini’s own and those of friends and relatives. This means that La Bohème, for all its romantic haze, is basically a realistic work, a snapshot of Puccini’s early years. Nor did he ever forget those terrible days. Many years later, when he was the richest and most famous opera composer in the world, he remembered one of those plain meals, and he remembered it when he was in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in his private parlor in the Imperial Suite of a luxury liner. In a flash it all came back to him, and he longed to smell beef stewing on a rickety stove, as it had in those long-gone days.
 
The World Premiere of La Bohème
Far, far from being a series of star-turns, this is an ensemble opera about simple people who are almost destitute. As the first act opens we meet the four Latin Quarter artists: Rodolfo, a poet and journalist; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a literary man and philosopher. They live from hand to mouth. The two women of the plot are Mimì, a frail girl who embroiders artificial flowers for a living, and Musetta, who sings for her living in cafes. When she is not with Marcello, Musetta trolls for elderly lovers; but in Act III, when she and Marcello are living together in an inn near the gates of Paris, they are broke, so she gives singing lessons to people who stay there, and Marcello “pays” for their room by painting murals on the outside wall.
 
These, then, are the people Puccini dearly loved. As he once said, he cared most about “little people with big sorrows.” Yet La Bohème is a full-scale opera, not a short verismo work about Sicilian peasants (as in Cavalleria Rusticana) or itinerant actors traveling in Calabria (as in Pagliacci). It would also be hard to imagine anything farther removed from the grandeur of the earlier operas of the 1800s: Donizetti’s shows about English royalty and nobility, for example; or Verdi’s Don Carlos, set in the court of Philip II of Spain, or Aida, set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. That is why La Bohème transformed its whole field, its genre.
 
The world premiere of La Bohème took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini conducting. Its cast was solid professionals, not queens and kings of the stage, so they were cut to the proper dimensions for this opera. In the end, its success swept everything else aside. It was everything Puccini had hoped for: a composer’s dream, for La Bohème is his opera, utterly and forever his.
 
Mary Jane Matz is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.


“Albert Herring” live broadcast tonight!

Tune in tonight for a special “L.A. Opera on Air” live broadcast of Albert Herring on Classical KUSC 91.5fm, starring Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer. Hosted by Duff Murphy and Kimberlea Daggy, the broadcast begins at 7:30pm, and will feature backstage interviews with conductor James Conlon and the stars of the opera. For opera lovers who live outside Southern California, you can listen via online streaming at www.kusc.org.


Domingo-Thornton Young Artists On Tour

LA Opera is delighted to continue its “Domingo-Thornton Young Artists On Tour” tradition this season, with a semi-staged abridged version of one of Mozart’s most popular comedies, Così fan tutte.

In this opera, two young men go undercover to test the fidelity of their ladies. What could possibly go wrong? Filled with ravishingly beautiful music and sparkling wit, Così fan tutte features a funny, clever plot that was bracingly politically incorrect, even in Mozart’s day. The music is performed in Italian with English narration, and running time is approximately 50 minutes.

Featuring:

Fiordiligi – Tracy Cox
Dorabella – Renée Rapier
Ferrando – Ben Bliss
Guglielmo – Museop Kim
Don Alfonso – Erik Anstine
Despina – Valentina Fleer
Piano – Douglas Sumi

 

Schedule:

Wednesday, November 30 at 1:30pm
Hollenbeck Palms Retirement Community, Historic Chapel
573 South Boyle Avenue, Los Angeles
Reservations required, call (323) 307-4522 for information.

 

Thursday, December 1 at 4:00pm
Pepperdine University, Raitt Recital Hall
24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

 

Saturday, December 3 at 2:00pm
Brand Library & Art Center, Recital Hall
1601 West Mountain Street, Glendale

 

Tuesday, December 6 at 7:30pm
University of La Verne, Morgan Auditorium
1950 Third Street, La Verne

 

Wednesday, December 7 at 12:30pm
Occidental College, Booth Hall, Bird Studio
1600 Campus Rd., Los Angeles

 

Friday, December 9 at 7:00pm
Pasadena Conservatory of Music, Recital Hall
100 North Hill Avenue, Pasadena

 

Saturday, December 10 at 7pm
City of West Hollywood, Council Chambers
625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood

 

Sunday, December 11 at 2pm
City of West Hollywood, Council Chambers
625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood

 

Thursday, December 15 at 7:00pm
Santa Monica Public Library, Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium
601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica

 

Friday, December 16 at 12:15pm
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall
135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

 

Saturday, December 17 at 4:00pm
First United Methodist Church of Pasadena
500 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena


Open House Today!

From 9:30am to 5pm today (Saturday, November 5), we’re throwing open the doors of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for a day full of fun, free activities and performances. Highlights include concerts with Placido Domingo and singers from our young artist program at 11am and 12:45pm, as well as numerous activities specially created for kids. Come on over and join us!


Open House on November 5

Help us celebrate LA Opera’s 25th anniversary at an Open House from 9:30am to 5pm on Saturday, November 5. We’ve planned a day-long series of fun, free activities  to showcase the fascinating world of opera, taking place in every part of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Events include Young Artist concerts jointly conducted by Placido Domingo and James Conlon, family operas created with younger folks in mind, backstage tours, screenings, and up-close looks at scenery, props and costumes. All ages are welcome! All events are offered free of charge, although selected events will require a ticket for entry due to limited availability. Advance tickets to the two concerts, the family program Sing Out Loud, and to the backstage tours are available now and can be reserved online by clicking here or by phone at (213) 972-8001. (There will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household.)

Scheduled Open House events include:

Art Workshops for Children
9:30am to 2:45pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall, Hope Street side
Two different hands-on art workshops will be offered throughout the day to children ages 4 to 10. Using opera as inspiration, children can make their own opera-themed finger puppets or decorate a postcard to send to a loved one.

 

The Prospector
10am and 3pm, Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall
Two performances of the 30-minute children’s opera by composer Lee Holdridge and librettist Richard Sparks, inspired by Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West. The opera is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families.

 

Scenic and Costume Presentations
10:30am and 3:30pm, 3rd Floor Lobby
Get a 20-minute, up-close look at the elaborate costumes and scenic elements that transform the stage into a magical world.

 

Young Artist Concerts Conducted by Plácido Domingo and James Conlon11am and 12:45pm, Main Auditorium, ticket required
Conductors Plácido Domingo and James Conlon share the podium for two concerts with the LA Opera Orchestra, featuring soloists from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program in excerpts from favorite operas. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to anticipated demand, advance passes (free) should be reserved to insure admission into the auditorium. There will be a live simulcast in the downstairs Green Room for overflow audiences.

 

Post-Concert Q&A
11:45am and 1:30pm, Main Auditorium, packaged with Young Artist Concert ticket
What is it like to perform in the world’s great opera houses? Find out in two post-concert roundtable discussions with Plácido Domingo and James Conlon.

 

Sing Out Loud
11:45am and 1:30pm, Founders Room, ticket required
Sing Out Loud is a 30-minute, interactive introduction to opera for children and their families, featuring some of opera’s “greatest hits.” The performance is geared toward children aged 4 to 10 and their families. The Founders Room is located on the Hope Street side of the theater, one floor above the main level. Seating is limited; passes (free) should be reserved in advance.

 

Screening: La Damnation de Faust
1:30pm, Downstairs Green Room
LA Opera’s 2003 production of Berlioz’s grand-scaled masterpiece, featuring Paul Groves, Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves, in a one-of-a-kind staging by director Achim Freyer.

 

Meet the Artists
2pm, South Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
Plácido Domingo and James Conlon will be available to autograph programs, CDs and DVDs. Items will be available for purchase in the main lobby’s Opera Shop.

 

Backstage Tours
2pm and 3:30pm, tickets required
Take a closer look at the sets and costumes for Roméo et Juliette with 45-minute guided backstage tours.

 

Screening: La Traviata
4pm, Downstairs Green Room
LA Opera’s 2006 production of Verdi’s beloved tragedy, starring Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón, in a sumptuous production by Marta Domingo.

 

Scenery and Prop Display
All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Grand Avenue side)
See how a designer’s vision makes it to the stage through set models, designers’ renderings and photos.

 

Costume and Wig Displays
All day, 3rd Floor Lobby (Hope Street side)
Regular clothes may make the man, but highly detailed costumes and wigs help singers make magic. Some of our best will be on display throughout the day.

 

LA Opera History Project
All day, 4th Floor Lobby
Share your LA Opera story. What was your first opera? Who are your favorite performers? Your reminiscences will be filmed as part of the permanent history of LA Opera.

 

Welcome Booths
All day, Main Lobby
Hosted by the Opera League of Los Angeles and Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera

 


Pas de Deux: Tchaikovsky Interprets Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

By Leann Davis Alspaugh

It was just another Moscow dinner party. Madame Lavronsky’s dull husband was talking his usual nonsense. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was about to give up the evening as a total loss when the guests began to talk about suitable subjects for opera. What about Eugene Onegin, the gracious hostess suggested. Tchaikovsky said nothing—who would be bold enough to take on Russia’s greatest work of literature and translate it for the opera stage? 

“Then when I supped alone in a tavern, I remembered Onegin,” he wrote to his brother in 1877. “Then it gripped me, and before I had finished my meal, I came to a decision. I hurried off at once to find a Pushkin, found one with some difficulty, went home and read it with enthusiasm, and spent an entirely sleepless night, the result of which was the scenario of an enchanting opera on Pushkin’s text.”

Tchaikovsky delighted in Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel about Tatiana the dreamy country girl, Lensky the fatal romantic, and Onegin the heartless dandy. What drew his enthusiasm was probably not the story, a rather banal tale of unrequited love and passion. Rather, Tchaikovsky was intrigued by the details about everyday life and the way that the author fleshed out his characters. The way Pushkin tells his story is also compelling. He gives it a tone of intimacy as if he were regaling guests at a Russian country estate. Outside, dusk is dimming the lilacs in the allée, and the songs of the peasants are fading over the wheat fields. Inside, the lady of the house bustles around the tea table with its bubbling samovar, caraway cakes and jugs of bilberry wine.

Pushkin deftly evokes these kinds of homey details as well as the porcelain and amber richness of the St. Petersburg ballrooms. But unlike the genre pictures of another great Russian stylist, Turgenev, Pushkin’s world is condensed into sharp focus by the exigencies of poetry. He zooms in on his protagonist’s nasty disposition and his heroine’s fecklessness—“The flirt has reason’s cool volition;/Tatiana’s love is no by-play, she yields to it without condition/like a sweet child.” He uses wit and sarcasm—“one raves in verse like me!”—to keep his tone conversational. The result is a naturalistic portrait not of types, but of real people.

Tchaikovsky wrote that he approached Eugene Onegin warily, humbled by his audacity in tackling this sacrosanct work. Yet, he let his enthusiasm be guided by Pushkin’s example, namely, the poet’s use of tightly controlled structure and telling detail to achieve psychological insight. In the opera, Tchaikovsky aims to achieve something similar by focusing on how two of society’s most mundane activities, letter-writing and dancing, can be used to illuminate character.

 

The Letter
When he came to write the music for Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky began with Tatiana’s passionate love letter to Onegin. In Pushkin’s verse novel, this letter is a bald confession uninflected by any of the usual literary devices. Tatiana’s “careless language of surrender” is a mad gesture—only Onegin’s sense of honor can protect such a free, unaffected outpouring of emotion. He must return either her letter or her love. Re-reading his Pushkin, Tchaikovsky was struck by Tatiana’s courage and indignant at the unworthy object of her love.

He was immersed in composition, finding in Tatiana a muse and a sympathetic victim, when he received a letter not unlike the one written by his heroine. For several months, the composer and his former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, continued to correspond, and she offered him her heart and hand. He told her he could only offer her brotherly love, and she assured him that she was willing to accept that. They announced their engagement in May 1877. Already struggling with his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky promptly took off for his librettist’s country estate near Moscow.

By the end of June, Tchaikovsky had two-thirds of Eugene Onegin completed. He and Antonina married in July, but he soon realized that he had made a horrible mistake. They lived together for 20 days without consummating the marriage. Nervous and ill, he left for his sister’s estate in Ukraine, and then returned to Moscow. He stayed with his wife for 12 days and then left for good. He traveled to Switzerland and Italy where he completed Eugene Onegin in January 1878.

Tchaikovsky could hardly have failed to remark on the coincidence of a fateful letter appearing in both Pushkin’s story and his own life. His emotional susceptibility at this period no doubt led him to turn to his own musical language to depict the characters in the opera. One of the ways he did this was to associate different keys with certain characters and ideas. Early on in the opera, Tchaikovsky assigns Onegin the key of G. The peasants’ khorovod dance and folk songs are associated with B-flat major. However, Tchaikovsky does not give Tatiana a strong musical identity until the letter-writing scene in which she sings in the key of D-flat major.

Prior to that scene, Tatiana is depicted as innocent and romantic, suffering alongside the unhappy lovers in the book that she is reading. Her mother, who confesses to having once been an avid reader of Richardson’s novels (all epistolary), cautions her daughter not to believe everything she reads. Their neighbor Lensky then arrives and introduces Onegin to the family. Lensky is the fiancé of Tatiana’s silly sister Olga, and the love poetry that he writes to her isn’t (it must be admitted) any more original than the girl to whom it is directed. Between her reading, Lensky’s love poetry, and her own dreamy temperament, Tatiana is ripe for infatuation. So far, the written word has dominated Tatiana’s intellect—this and the essentially Russian resignation to the whims of fate. With her letter to Onegin, however, Tatiana turns the power of words to her own uses in a surprisingly bold and independent move.

In the aria he wrote for her, Tchaikovsky reveals Tatiana to be a far better poet than Lensky could ever hope to be. Her innocence is a guarantee for her authenticity. He also places Tatiana in a unique position, one often occupied by male characters in Russian literature. When she sings “I am alone…no one understands me and I must perish in silence,” she seems to be taking on the character of the “superfluous man,” the Russian literary type who is an outcast because he does not follow society’s values and standards. Granted, in Pushkin, this character is clearly Onegin, the aristocrat whose actions lead to senseless death and the tragedy of a purposeless life. Within the confines of the opera, however, Tatiana takes on that role when she pens a confessional letter to a strange man, transgressing all that society deems permissible for an unmarried girl. “Perhaps, I have an entirely different destiny,” she sings, invoking fate and honor in a declaration that is almost masculine in its clear-headed assertiveness. Later, Onegin will write a similar passionate letter to Tatiana, strengthening not only the construction of the narrative, but also adding dramatic significance to something as seemingly innocuous as ink on paper.

The Dance
With a composer like Tchaikovsky, so well known for his ballets, the element of dance in Eugene Onegin cannot be ignored. Like letter-writing, dancing was common but full of expressive opportunities. In polite society, dancing was the only socially sanctioned activity in which a man might hold a woman close in thrilling, synchronized movement. The opportunity to see and be seen, to gossip, or to flirt added to the excitement.

In Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky draws not only on European dance tradition, but also on Russian folk dances and songs. In Act I, a peasant chorus dances the traditional khorovod and sings about maidens and a lad as “fresh as a raspberry” who carries a cudgel and bagpipes. The foreshadowing of the arrival of Onegin and his effect on Tatiana is clear, but, as dance historian Roland John Wiley points out, to integrate a simple peasant dance dramatically into opera was a new idea. In the operas of Glinka, for example, dance served as an interlude, interrupting the action for a dash of local color. Dance, for Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, while it certainly allowed for musical shifts and eye-catching choreography, also reinforced the narrative arch and added dimension to the characters.

In Act II, Tatiana is chagrined to see that Onegin has had the temerity (and poor taste) to show up at her name-day party after having received her letter and rebuffed her. To add insult to injury, he then asks her to dance, but quits abruptly when he overhears people gossiping about him. He decides to show these bumpkins how it is done in Petersburg and begins a vigorous flirtation with Olga. Lensky is deeply insulted, especially because Olga has been dancing to all the most romantic music with Onegin rather than with her sensitive poet-lover.

While it is true that a ballroom scene allows Tchaikovsky to display all of his prodigious skill at waltz composition, it also serves a deeper function in the opera. The spectacle of the whirling dancers and the musical momentum lulls us into complacency—what can go wrong at a country dance? The dancing is then interrupted, first by Monsieur Triquet’s inept French verses and then by Lensky’s anger. His hateful words and the crowd’s reaction is a jarring stop to the delicious waltz. As Lensky throws down the gauntlet, it is impossible to forget that Pushkin himself died from wounds following a duel in 1837.

Tchaikovsky also used stylized movement in the duel scene. This “dance of death,” if you will, was dictated by what Lensky’s punctilious second Zaretsky calls “strict rules and old traditions.” Zaretsky instructs the men where to stand and when to aim their pistols. To reinforce the idea of coordinated movement, Onegin and Lensky sing not independently, but together of how they used to be friends, but must now kill in premeditated cold blood. The interruption of the “dance” here is the pistol shot that fells Lensky.

Act III opens several years later with a ball in the Gremin palace, where Tatiana now lives as wife to an old warrior, Prince Gremin. The waltz music here is richer and more complex than that heard at Tatiana’s name-day party. Tchaikovsky picks up the pace with a polonaise and an écossaise. These popular dances, ones that raced like wildfire through European high society, had simple folk beginnings, a Pushkinian irony that Tchaikovsky no doubt relished. In the middle of this brilliant scene, Onegin, once a top-flight dandy, is now seen as a moping eccentric and even “the glitter of society doesn’t dispel [his] melancholy.”

By the third act, both dancing and letter-writing have become more than just quaint cues to the distant past. Trapped in the heat and crush of the ballroom, Onegin belatedly realizes that he loves Tatiana. He writes her an impassioned latter (sharing the language of her letter-writing aria) and he is rejected. Tatiana refuses to take Onegin as a lover, keeping her sacred vow of marriage. Again, she is almost masculine in her sense of integrity and honor. Inexorable fate has prevented both Onegin and Tatiana from having the kind of life they imagined. All of their movements and all of their letters have led to nothing, a useless expenditure of energy.

Tchaikovsky could never have been satisfied with this note of pessimism. For him, as for Pushkin, creative engagement—with words and music—was an affirmation and an end in itself. The poet might have agreed with Tchaikovsky, who said of his opera, “If ever music was written with sincere passion, with love for the story and the characters in it, it is the music for Onegin…. If the listener feels even the smallest part of what I experienced when I was composing this opera, I shall be utterly content and ask for nothing more.”

Leann Davis Alspaugh is a frequent contributor to LA Opera’s performance programs.