Skip to main content

Information 213.972.8001

Blog entries tagged with Onegin

Emmy Rossum is Honorary Gala Chair for ARIA’s Opening Night Celebration

We are thrilled to announce that Emmy Rossum , co-star of the edgy Showtime series Shameless and a lovely lyric soprano as well (did you see her in The Phantom of the Opera ?), will be ARIA’s Honorary Gala Chair for the opening night of our season!

That’s just one of the big moves that ARIA, our group for Young Professionals, is making this year. Instead of a being relegated to the kids’ table, ARIA is joining the grown-ups at the White Night Season Opening Gala after-party. It’s shaping up to be a spectacular evening of dancing, Russian-themed food and drinks, champagne and fabulousness! Will you be there? And who are YOU wearing?

Click HERE for information about ARIA and the White Night Season Opening Gala, and click HERE to get your Eugene Onegin tickets!


Rehearsals are underway!

Photo by Robert Millard

With the first two productions of the season now in rehearsal, there’s a lot going on around here. Here are two of the stars of “Eugene Onegin,” Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga) and Dalibor Jenis (Onegin), ready to get to work!

Today is a fairly typical day: costume fittings (and a couple of wig fittings) for the “Onegin” principals all morning, followed by an afternoon run-through of Act 1, then an evening choreography rehearsal with the principals and dancers for the Act 2 ball scene. The “Cosi” principals have a staging rehearsal this afternoon, and another staging rehearsal tonight when they’ll be joined by the chorus and supers. Despina (Roxana Constantinescu) also has a costume fitting. There are vocal coachings for some of the young artists who are covering leading roles. Like we said: a fairly typical day!


Another Opening, Another Show

The curtain has risen on the 2011/12 with a fantastic performance of Eugene Onegin. How about some Mozart to keep the celebration going? Cosi fan tutte opens tomorrow at 2pm. If you can’t be here with us in the theater, join us at home by listening to our live radio broadcast at KUSC 91.5 fm (or online at www.kusc.org).


We’re number one!

With our season opening this weekend, we’re #1 on the “Los Angeles Downtown News” list of top five things to do this weekend. Click here for your weekend entertainment to-do list.


James Conlon: Lyrical Scenes from Pushkin’s Poems

Stripped to its bones, the dynamic energizing 19th-century Italian operatic melodramas can be said to be drawn from one enduring myth: that of Romeo and Juliet, observed Italian writer Massimo Mila. In tragedies and melodramas, a hero and heroine (usually lovers) struggle with rivals or inimical forces that thwart their love until death separates them forever. 

Not so in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse of the same name. Its protagonists are alive in the end, their love is never fulfilled, and the only villains or forces are those within themselves.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is tragic, whereas Pushkin recounts his story with detached irony. The genius of the novel is in the style of the telling, the triumph of the music is the way in which it stirs emotions. Selecting only the tragic narrative from Pushkin, the composer fulfilled his stated intention: “set to music everything in Onegin that demands music.” Nothing more. He transforms a larger than life portrait of an era into a personal tragedy of failed love.

This fall, LA Opera produces two operas drawn from great literature: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, taken from Pushkin. It seems the right time to return to an enduring question. Must a composer be faithful to the original when setting an important work of literature to music, rendering both spirit and text? Or can the source be used solely as a point of departure for the composer’s muse?

Music and literature are not and cannot be the same thing. Musical notes and words evoke emotions through opposite means. Music, received through the senses, stimulates an emotional response which then can be analyzed in turn by the intellect. The written word, grasped initially by the intellect, can, if so intended, move us. The oft-repeated maxim is “Music starts where words stop.” Attempts to reduce music’s “meaning” to words are futile.

Most composers, while insisting on free adaptation, stay close to the source, altering it to fit their needs and those of their era. For example, most of Europe and Russia only knew Shakespeare through rough and often inaccurate translations and willful “rearrangements.” At worst, there are glaring examples of abuse (Rossini’s Otello has a happy ending). Every opera based on a literary source must reduce words, plot and length.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has endeared itself to a large international public. He called it “lyrical scenes in three acts,” avoiding the word opera. He was profoundly aware that he was setting to music one of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, if not the greatest. Pushkin’s novel defined a new age. Onegin set the standard for, towered over and inspired the future of Russian literature. Tchaikovsky, cognizant he could only select a part of the work, approached his source with humility and reverence. He was criticized for fundamentally changing the nature of the work, diluting its cerebral irony in return for heightened sentiment. His defenders argued that the coherence and inner strength of the opera merits admiration rather than censure. He has, like most composers, followed his muse. He was more successful than most in creating an enduring and compelling work that justifies itself and needs no apology. He has spoken to us through music what Pushkin’s words had spoken to him.

Pushkin’s novel is an all-embracing view of Russian life and society, written with ironic distance from its characters. Cerebral, witty, satiric in turns, he never allows the reader to feel too deeply for its protagonists, nor weep or rejoice with them. The skeptic in him, and in Onegin himself, prevents this.

Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, identifies with his characters, first and foremost Tatiana. Pushkin speaks in the first person through verse as rich in editorial comment as in narrative. Tchaikovsky does not narrate from afar, but empathizes deeply with each of the richly drawn personalities. Tchaikovsky is primarily a Romantic who pours out his own heart through his music. His orchestra is not like Wagner’s, which is an omniscient universe surrounding the drama in time and space. It only “knows” the emotions at the moment they are expressed, singing, yearning and raging with its counterparts on stage.*

Unlike Tchaikovsky, Pushkin is only a Romantic in the sense that he reserves the right to improvise and wander out of the narrative when his fancy dictates. Otherwise, he is a Classicist, to which his disciplined use of form and poetic symmetry attest. For example, he created the Onegin Stanza, a unique rhyming scheme which unifies this extensive work. Tchaikovsky, conversely, was a Classicist when he wanted or needed to be, and his admiration of Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and, above all, Mozart is evident throughout.

Onegin’s character is not one to evoke sympathy. Although he is Pushkin’s invention (and said to be Pushkin himself), he has literary predecessors in Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) Childe Harold and Manfred. Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s erstwhile lover, coined the term “Byronic Hero” to describe characters “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. A critical description of his peculiar type of hero includes:

Arrogant, cunning and able to adapt, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted, bipolar, moody, having a distaste for social institutions and norms, intelligent and perceptive, jaded, world weary, mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, seductive and sexually attractive, self critical and introspective, self destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated and educated, treated as an exile, outsider, outcast or outlaw

This exhaustive list renders any further description of Onegin’s character superfluous. It is he. Clearly Tchaikovsky is attracted to him and his “type,” so much so that shortly after Onegin, he turned his gaze on Manfred, finishing a symphony that bears his name, in 1885.

The composer also identifies with Onegin’s best friend, the young, un-Byronic poet Lensky, betrothed to Olga, Tatiana’s sister. He dies in Act Two, having been shot to death in a duel (a premonition of Pushkin’s own death) by Onegin; not, however, before pouring out his (and Tchaikovsky’s) heart in an aria that has found its place in the pantheon of the tenor repertory. His relationship with his charismatic and fatally self-absorbed friend is complex, beautifully rendered in Pushkin’s words: “wave and stone, verse and prose, ice and flame.” Lensky’s youthful, ardent poetic character appeals deeply to the composer.

But it is Tatiana who has completely won the composer’s heart. He was so attracted to her that, no sooner had he sketched a scenario for the entire work, he immediately wrote the letter scene, in which Tatiana gives voice to her passion for Onegin, in a flash of fevered inspiration as intense as Tatiana herself. So perfect and inspired, this scene could stand by itself, and often does, on the concert stage. The daughter of a “pomeshchik” (landed estate owner), she became the most famous and beloved heroine of Russian literature. She could not express herself in Russian, Pushkin tells us (the famous letter was written in French, the lingua franca of the Russian aristocracy) yet she embodies the Russian soul.

Tatiana derives her heroic status from her metamorphosis. She begins life as shy, modest girl, who loves ardently if not wisely, defies convention by confessing that love in a letter, and resigns herself with dignity when humiliated. She becomes a sophisticated princess of high society, who defends duty and commitment, denying herself the very love she so craved.

So: no hero, no villain, except perhaps half of both in Onegin’s conflicted Byronic character. At the end, neither of the two principal characters dies, nor are they reconciled. Their tragedy is that they must live, albeit a diminished, loveless life. Tatiana renounced her great love when it was finally reciprocated. Onegin killed his best friend and ignored his chance for an authentic, enduring love. The tragedy is that of bad timing, unfortunate choices and missed opportunity. It is the tragedy of the passing of two ships in the night, not once, but twice.

*Note: By his own admission, Tchaikovsky was most comfortable writing abstract, instrumental music, in which there was neither an obligation to the word nor constraint to the extravagant emotional content of his music. His fourth symphony, a kindred spirit, was written virtually contemporaneously with Eugene Onegin. It shares the famous “fatum” or destiny motif.

James Conlon, the conductor of Eugene Onegin, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.


Eugene Onegin: Duty, Absurdity and the Everyday

By James Kincaid

Tchaikovsky tells us he was, at first, alarmed at the idea of turning Pushkin’s beloved masterpiece Eugene Onegin into an opera. Luckily for us, he soon saw in that poetic narrative a chance to escape “Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings and stilted effects of all kinds.” Here, in a simple story of domestic screw-ups, the great composer also spotted a chance to “convey through music everyday simple, universally human emotions, far removed from everything tragic or theatrical.”

Fully aware of the risks he was taking in abandoning tried and true dramatic formulae, Tchaikovsky insisted what he had done was not an opera at all, simply “lyric scenes.” “The opera,” he said, “will, of course, be without any strong dramatic action; but on the other hand it will have an interesting everyday aspect to it.” Such low-mimetic realism, he also figured, would guarantee a flop: “it is insufficiently lively and interesting to be to the public’s liking.” So convinced was he that he had a loser on his hands, he trusted this “opera without any prospects” to the students at the Moscow Conservatory for its debut in 1879.

Now this not-quite-an-opera is part of the standard repertoire and much loved. Nor did it take long to establish itself: 1881 at the Bolshoi, Prague in 1888, and, settling matters for all time, a triumphant 1892 performance in Berlin, conducted by Gustav Mahler. The always modest Tchaikovsky attributed the success altogether to Mahler, clinging to the notion that his work was nothing more than a small thing suited to production in homes or small concert halls.

Not that everyone was thrilled at the time. Some disliked any meddling with this iconic Russian work. Some, more pointedly, disliked the particular meddling Tchaikovsky had done: Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, praising the music (as all have since) but disdaining the story: “What a libretto!”

What a libretto, indeed! The form of the narrative circles round a central irony of missed opportunities caused by characters whose motives, if one can call them that, are derived from trashy novels or passing winds. Upright people still regard Eugene Onegin as an opera teaching us the importance of Duty, which it may well. Tatiana can easily be seen as the central character and her actions as exemplary of mature and responsible being in the world. Having thrown herself into a tempestuous but ridiculously artificial passion for Onegin in her youth, she later sees that what counts is not passion — there is no sign that she connects to old, grizzled Prince Gremin in that way — but moral rectitude, being true to one’s pledges. There is a little of this even in Pushkin’s tricky and poised poem. “Complete moral independence is taking control over all lusts,” he said.

Doubtless true but, speaking only for myself, I find opera most pleasing when it is willing to invade the lust area a little and ease up on the iron moralisms. Duty makes me think of Mother at her worst, of George S. Patton (“duty is the essence of manhood”) and Robert E. Lee (“duty is the most sublime word in our language”), and calls up a longing for Oscar Wilde (“our duty… is to revive the old art of lying”), Shaw (“when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty”) and Albert Camus (“our only duty is to love”).

Speaking of Camus, there is the chance we may take this opera not as a Victorian paean to dull responsibility but as a relentless portrayal of an absurd man. After all, Eugene Onegin, though central to the action, seems hardly ever present to us and, even less, to himself. Tatiana steals the first act from him, Lensky the second, and Gremin the third. Onegin postures, causes lots of damage, but never makes contact with a real motive or cause. More than Prufrock, he is the Hollow Man. He rejects love, kills his friend, does a poor imitation of Byron, and then is abandoned, as lost as ever. And why? He has done none of this for any reason, his murder of his friend making Meursault’s shooting of the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger seem deeply motivated. Worse, Onegin is not even the victim of any external forces. We’ve known Oedipus, and Gene here is no Oedipus, not even a Willy Loman. Just what we tough post-modernists recognize and thrill to: he’s so like us.

James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.