Lyric scenes in three acts by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky to a libretto by the composer and Konstantin Stepanovich Shilovsky after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin's novel in verse (1833); Moscow, Malïy Theatre, 17/29 March 1879 [students of the Moscow Conservatory]; professional première, Moscow, Bol'shoy Theatre, 11/23 January 1881.
The première of the opera was given by students, under Nikolay Rubinstein, with Mariya Klimentova as Tatyana; at the professional première the con‐ductor was Enrico Bevignani and Onegin was sung by Pavel Khokhlov.
The idea of transposing the most beloved work of Russian fiction to the musical stage was not Tchaikovsky's to begin with. It was proposed to him, during a social call on 25 May/6 June 1877, by the contralto Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya (1845–1919), and, according to an oft‐cited letter to his brother Modest, at first it struck the composer as ‘wild’. The drawbacks were obvious: Pushkin's novel was loved for the telling, not the tale. The plot as such was slender and banal, but the book was loved for its divine details: the verbal dazzle, the wry social commentary, the perfectly exact descriptions, the endlessly subtle and nuanced characterizations, the ironized interrelationship of literary and social conventions – all that comes under the heading of narrative quality.
What Tchaikovsky shortly perceived – and what critics (not audiences) have failed to perceive for over a century – was that music of a sort he was uniquely inclined and equipped to write could perform exactly those functions for which Pushkin's narrative voice was prized. The result was a chef d'oeuvre of stylized operatic realism: the Russian counterpart to Traviata or Manon, except that it stands higher in its national tradition than they in theirs, and its realism more fundamentally determined its style.
Tchaikovsky spent a sleepless night after his visit to Lavrovskaya's, at the end of which he had a scenario in hand that differs only slightly from that of the finished opera. On 27 May he sought out his friend Konstantin Shilovsky, who had been pestering him with ideas for biblical and historical grand operas, and persuaded the latter to focus with him on Onegin. Together the two of them worked out a text that preserves a maximum of Pushkin's original verses. Shilovsky's major contribution to the libretto consisted of Monsieur Triquet's couplets (both French and ruptured‐Russian versions) in Act 2 scene i; the composer was responsible for Lensky's arioso in Act 1.i and that of Prince Gremin in Act 3.i.
He began composing straight away with Tatyana's letter (1.ii), on Pushkin's unaltered text. This self‐contained passage, which all educated Russians know by heart, was something Tchaikovsky had planned to set long before conceiving the operatic project. (During this initial period of ardent imaginative work, identifying strongly with Tatyana and full of indignation at the title character, her unworthy love object, the composer unexpectedly found himself the recipient of a similar confessional letter from an unremembered former pupil named Antonina Milyukova; this suggestive coincidence set in motion the chain of events that led to Tchaikovsky's brief, disastrous marriage.) The first four scenes of the opera were written during the month of June (Old Style) on Shilovsky's country estate. Then followed the calamitous events connected with the composer's wedding and its aftermath, when he came to realize that physical contact with a woman repelled him; he returned to Onegin during his extended recuperative stay in Western Europe, and only after embarking upon the Fourth Symphony, which would compete for his time for the rest of the year. Act 1 was fully scored by the end of October (in Clarens, Switzerland, where 36 years later Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring). By 13/25 January 1878, all of the opera was complete in score except for the duel scene (2.ii). This, the last vocal music in the opera to be composed, was written in the hills outside San Remo, Italy. The orchestral introduction followed. The whole work was completed in full score on 20 January/1 February. Even with the distractions of personal disaster and major competing projects, it had taken only eight months to write.