Madame Larina cherishes her two daughters, her upper-middle-class wealth, and her estate. The curtain rises on a garden in which she and her servant Filipievna are preparing to make jam; inside the house, her daughters Tatiana and Olga practice a duet that becomes a female quartet. Madame Larina confesses to her servant that she was a romantic young woman, especially affected by Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison into marrying a man she did not love, but with whom she had produced her daughters and her easy life. A chorus of peasants then enters and sings and dances folk music; where Tatiana is made to feel romantic sadness, Olga, who feels gay, is given to tuneful extroversion.
After Filipievna leads the peasants off to liquid refreshment, Madame Larina warns Tatiana that real life, unlike romantic novels, produces no romantic heroes, using her own disappointment as an example.
At this cue, Lenski, a poet who lives nearby and who is engaged to Olga, enters, accompanied with Eugen Onegin, a wealthy young man who has fatigued himself in the social whirl in town. Madame Larina leaves her daughters to entertain the young men. In an ensuing quartet, Lenski sings of his earnest affection for Olga, Onegin finds Tatiana to be of casual interest, and Tatiana is smitten with Onegin. Tatiana thus agrees happily to accompany Onegin to the lake. Filipievna too soon calls for dinner, and seeing Onegin telling Tatiana some of his family history, understands exactly what the situation is, that Tatiana is falling deeply in love without knowing it.
Though it is late, Tatiana cannot sleep and pesters Filipievna to tell her a story. After hearing of the servant’s loveless marriage, Tatiana confesses her already helpless love for Onegin.
Enjoining the servant not to tell and wishing her a good night, Tatiana asks for her writing desk.
What ensues is the famous Letter Scene, which Tchaikovsky composed before he wrote the libretto. In it, Tatiana screws her courage up to write to Onegin and then composes her letter. In the letter, Tatiana assays the notion that she was fated to love Onegin and Onegin alone, asking only for his pity in return.
Tatiana has spent the night in composing her letter, and she asks Filipievna to have her son deliver it, identifying its recipient only as a neighbor until the servant, feigning deafness, makes her name the person for whom it is addressed. Alone once again, Tatiana ponders what will result from her rash gesture.
To the off-stage sound of peasants singing folk wisdom to young women of the dangers of choosing the wrong lover, Tatiana enters, agitated at the sight of Onegin approaching. In the aria he sings after arriving, Onegin politely but firmly tells her that he cannot reciprocate her affection, that marriage to him would end in disappointment. Tatiana is crushed; off-stage, the chorus repeats its warning to young girls.
The curtain rises on a dance Madame Larina has arranged in honor of Tatiana’s birthday; all of the well-to-do have been invited, and the older among them comment on the proceedings as a waltz plays. That Onegin is dancing with the guest of honor is the chief item of the discussion, along with joking references to a wedding in spite of Onegin’s less-than-stellar reputation. Onegin is annoyed by the chatter, but is even more miffed by Lenski’s having brought him to a boring provincial party. Moved to retribution, he dances with Lenski’s fiance when he has the opportunity and then accuses her of flirting with him. He then reminds Olga that she has promised him the next cotillion, and she walks off with him in order to punish her jealous fiance.
These tensions are temporarily interrupted by the formal song composed by the elderly French tutor Monsieur Triquet in honor of his pupil Tatiana. That this song is composed and sung in French, preferred in the nineteenth century by Russians who liked to show off their education and social attainment, embarrasses Tatiana, but no one else.
During the traditional cotillion that follows, Onegin digs at Lenski by telling him that he looks at stern and stiff as the Childe Harolde of the Byron poem. Lenski becomes angrier and angrier at the stream of barbs that follow Onegin’s having made off with his beloved, and, as others gather round the two, he finally challenges his friend to a duel. A great ensemble aria ensues, in which the characters and chorus express sentiments appropriate to the occasion. Onegin, in particular, sings regret that he has teased his friend to this point. Since he cannot gainsay his taunting now, he accepts the duel challenge and agrees to meet his friend the next morning; Tatiana grieves, and Olga collapses.
Onegin is late the following morning, and Lenski and his second Zaretski wait impatiently beside s stream near a mill. While the second exits in order to talk to the miller, Lenski sings what is well-known at “Lenski’s Air,” a stirring goodbye to Olga, love, and youth.
Onegin finally appears with Gillot, his second, who is so frightened by the idea of a duel that he hides behind a tree when the shooting begins. First, though, the two principals sing a duet in which each state that he would prefer to resume their friendship, but that he must meet the requirements of the duel now that they have been invoked; the duet ends with an emphatic “No” by each of them. After given instructions by Zaretski, the two principals step forward three paces, and Onegin fires first, killing Lenski and enveloping himself in grief.
The curtain rises at the home of Prince Gremin, a wealthy and retired general, at which a ball is in progress; the music of the Polanaise, a fashionable orchestral piece, is played for the ballet dancers. After three years of wandering and attempting to forget the duel, Onegin has arrived at this home, the home of a distant relative, in one more attempt to overcome his guilt. He is but 26, but feels much older.
Tatiana, now the Princess Gremin, does not recognize this unfamiliar guest; she is moved when she hears the name at the same time that Onegin is learning Tatiana’s name from his host and feeling similar emotion. In a stirring aria, Gremin praises his wife and asserts that her love alone in the world has ennobled it for him. However, when the two old lovers are introduced, Tatiana pleads fatigue in order to be excused.
Onegin has finally fallen in love with her, however. He wonders how he could have behaved so awfully to her since she is such an exquisite creature. He concludes his aria holding the letter she sent him years before and singing the same theme, but in the baritone range, that she had sung in announcing her love in the Letter Scene.
Tatiana, now awaiting Onegin in a room in her husband’s house, is holding the letter of love that Onegin has written her; she indicates that this will be a difficult meeting.
When Onegin arrives and he pleads with her on his knees, she attempts at first to be cold, suggesting that he is attracted to her only because she is the wife of a wealthy and revered man. She then melts to his earnest passion, his acknowledgment of his bad behavior earlier, and his entreaty that she run away with him. After listening to his stirring phrases for a while longer and summoning all her moral courage, however, she rises, rejects Onegin, tells him to be gone, and flees the room, leaving him once again enveloped by anguish.
Original name: Евгений Онегин
Libretto: Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Konstantin Shilovsky
After the novel in verse with the same name by Alexander Pushkin
Stage Director: Eleonora Constantinov, People's Artist
Set Designer: Veaceslav Ocunev
Costume Designer: Irina Press, Master of Arts
Choreography: Anatol Carpuhin
World Premiere: March 29, 1879, at Small Theatre, Moscow.
Premiere in Chishinau: December 13, 1956, at the Moldova State Theatre of Opera and Ballet
Premiere of the current version: March 2, 1985, at Academic State Theatre of Opera and Ballet
Running time: 3 hours 30 min (two intervals)
Opera is presented in Russian
Subtitles in Romanian
opera in three acts by Pyotr Tchaikovsky