Pushkin's "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin (1823-31) is an odd choice for operatic treatment. It is dominated by a gossipy, intrusive narrator who would need to be dropped from any musical interpretation of the plot. Its intricately rhyming 14-line stanzas are untouchably perfect. And it is almost devoid of eye-to-eye contact, that is, of potential duets. Lovers write letters, or dream, or lecture one another sternly; they do not make trysts or tenderly converse. Bad timing is the rule. Tatyana writes a letter to Onegin; he turns her down and soon after disappears. When Onegin later writes to Tatyana, she does not respond at all. In the novel's final scene, after the hero has abjectly declared his love, the heroine says no, rises, and leaves the room. Love in Pushkin's novel is always being aroused, nurtured, dreamt about, but it does not give rise to reciprocated events. Can one build intense operatic confrontations out of non-events and non-meetings? This was the challenge facing Tchaikovsky when, in 1877, he turned to Pushkin's masterpiece. His response was to focus on the women.
Tchaikovsky was 37‹and during that year, two women fatefully entered his life. The first was a young student at the Conservatory named Antonina Miliukova, who wrote Tchaikovsky a letter declaring her passionate love. Not wishing to play the heartless Onegin to her helpless Tatyana, the composer not only agreed to see her but resolved to marry her. In Russian society of that time, homosexuality was condemned by the Church but tolerated if discreetly practiced; it was not uncommon for homosexual men to marry for the sake of appearances, with full understanding on the part of the wife and with no change in the husband's lifestyle. But Antonina apparently insisted on a "normal marriage"‹which brought Tchaikovsky to the edge of nervous collapse. Tchaikovsky fled abroad, and after three months, his doctors strongly advised that he separate permanently from his wife. Tchaikovsky's younger brother Modest, ever vigilant to protect Peter's public image and peace of mind, later spread the notion that Antonina was already mentally unbalanced at the time of her marriage.
The other woman in his life was more benevolent, but equally distanced. This was Nadezhda von Meck, nine years older than Tchaikovsky, ardently fond of music, a widow who at the age of 16 had married a Russianized German engineer, bore him 18 children ‹and who, when her husband died, discovered (perhaps not surprisingly) that she was deeply weary of men. She became infatuated with Tchaikovsky's music and offered him a stipend of 6,000 rubles annually, an arrangement that lasted for fourteen years. It permitted the composer to devote himself full-time to creative work. The one condition laid down by Madame von Meck was that she and her beneficiary never meet. Thus, in 1877 the Muse smiled on Tchaikovsky. The ill-starred wife had moved out, and the composer had befriended another woman who was willing to pay him to produce music as long as he did not attempt to interact with her in any medium more intimate than written correspondence. It was the perfect Onegin-Tatyana situation as Pushkin had envisioned: all communication took place in letters, none happened in a shared present time-and-space.
But distance is not dramatic. To make Pushkin's plot work on stage, the composer would have to compress and overlap the novel's private, lonely "time zones" so that people would sing to one another all those sentiments which in the novel they send off, or wait for, or suffer through in silence. Tchaikovsky desired a series of "lyrical scenes," but such trust and lyric warmth were not prominent in his literary source. Perhaps opera could provide it, through its convention of the aria‹a musical form publicly sung, but privately experienced and consumed. Tatyana's Letter Scene, the first episode Tchaikovsky composed, is just this sort of trustful, spontaneous outpouring. But set arias cannot be the whole of an opera, they can only be the peak moments; singers must also cluster on stage and communicate through group dynamics. How could Pushkin's sense of aloneness, disjunction, and mistiming be sustained at the more "collective" moments of the opera?
Tchaikovsky had two routes. He had the resources of the orchestra, which could create tantalizing counterpoint against the words characters sing, adding a nostalgic or ironic coloration by referring to earlier motifs and emotions. This method is used in the final scene, where Tchaikovsky forces into dialogue large segments of Pushkin's lonely, linear plot. He has Onegin sing to a flesh-and-blood, physically present Tatyana, the lines that in the novel he only writes to her, and writes to her fruitlessly. Such on-the-spot singing wears down her resistance. Unlike Pushkin's Onegin, the operatic hero is a stubborn fighter and a wooer. Tatyana struggles against his attractiveness. If anything keeps her true to her marriage vows, it is the persistent musical (not verbal) reminder of Lensky's death by Onegin's pistol shot, a motif that recurs only in the orchestra. In this final scene, there is no consummation‹but it comes exceedingly close. Music itself could dangerously thicken and complicate the emotions of the lovers, as Pushkin's lines were re-arranged, superimposed, and collapsed in time in order to create a dramatically effective scene.
There was another resource: the libretto. It is common practice to despise the libretto as a literary form, but in fact libretti need not flatten out character nor inflate it in crude simplistic ways. A libretto can convey subtleties that novels and spoken drama cannot: it can portray the development of complex inner feelings in two, three, four characters all at the same time. In a stage play this would be cacophony, a shouting match, incomprehensible to the audience; in an opera, it is simply an ensemble. Here Tchaikovsky's genius was profound. In Eugene Onegin, the arias‹Lensky's, Tatyana's, Onegin's, Gremin's‹are rather straightforward; the ensembles, however, are haunting and disorienting. Characters often do not sing to each other but alongside one another, each locked in his or her own space and time. Even when the singing is in concert, what dominates is a sense of unbridgeable, individual desires and worlds. Eugene Onegin is Tchaikovsky's bold attempt to broaden the potential of the lyrical zone.
Consider only one such ensemble-cluster, the famous opening scene. It is a quartet for four female voices, organized around the four ages of women: the young girl dreaming of love (Tatyana), as yet unaroused by any specific image; the "awakened" girl (her younger sister Olga, already engaged to be married); the widowed mother (Larina) for whom Eros is something long past; and the ancient nurse Filipyevna, for whom Eros probably never existed at all, and in any case is certainly not to be remembered. The key refrain of the quartet is a famous line that Pushkin adapted from Chateaubriand: "God sends us habit from above / In place of happiness and love." Our life is successful to the extent that we can adjust to events beyond our control‹ because, as Pushkin will demonstrate, routines and habits are a very good replacement for "events," which inevitably bring pain, emotional explosion, and collapse.
A vocabulary of explosion and collapse is precisely what most operas require. But Tchaikovsky, a man of impeccable taste and discretion, felt otherwise. He did not believe in the Romantic ideal of the rebellious, alienated poet. Music should not exhaust us but delight us. And what delights us is what we can follow easily and identify with immediately. Tchaikovsky was exceptionally good at musicalizing everyday experience. Thus he was attracted to the French model of the "Opéra Lyrique," which focused not on exotic adventures or supernatural events but on everyday responses to ordinary events. Tchaikovsky was a a crowd-pleaser‹as was his beloved hero, Mozart. He worked with common denominators. The best parts of the world, he insisted, were run by love that had become a habit. But how bold to attempt to place this everyday moral truth in a romantic opera!
The opera's women represent this truth in its purest form. In the opening quartet, each woman sings her own words about her own stage of experience: one looking anxiously to the future; the others to a happy present, a nostalgic past, and an extinguished past. (It is interesting that in an early draft of the libretto, Tchaikovsky noted down the precise ages of his characters: Tatyana is 17, Madame Larina, 56, the nurse, 70.) Of the four, only Tatyana moves and grows. In contrast to these richly diversified ages of women, the men's duets are aggressive and confrontational. Their behavior results in big, silly events that interrupt life's humane habits, events like the scandal at Tatyana's nameday party and the wholly unnecessary duel. They make a show of being different, but in their final duet Lensky and Onegin sing the same words. The two male leads are active, belligerent, but essentially one-dimensional. Their final duet is a superimposed monologue. In contrast, the women in the first scene may appear passive‹but collectively they have been everywhere, they absorb all of life's important events. The men are either episodic, like Prince Gremin, or try to kill each other off.
All this is very far from the grand, consummation-oriented Italian opera, full of hysterical divas, driving appetites and melodrama, that surrounded Tchaikovsky in the 1860s and '70s. But it is rather close to Pushkin. Pushkin's plot is also governed by fate and by symmetrical renunciation. The best life, Pushkin everywhere advises, is one in which there are no disruptive events, where everything happens in its right time, where you grow into your next role gracefully. In the opera, the four ages of women are not spread out in a line but stacked, one on top of the other, singing over each other's lines. Again and again, instead of dramatic "operatic" action, we get from the women the wisdom of renunciation and submission to habit. Only in the final scene is temptation played out. But that resolution is not consummated; it backs off and remains at the level of two lovers' fantasies. In a way, the finale resembles the women's quartet of the opening scene: all together, but each alone. Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is among the loneliest, most self-contained and disciplined lyrical worlds ever put on stage.