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Tchaikovsky started work on an operatic treatment of Pushkin’s great verse novel, Eugene Onegin, in the spring of 1877, at  the same time his extraordinary epistolary affair with Antonina Milyukova, a former pupil, began. He was deeply struck by the parallels between Tatiana’s love and Onegin’s treatment of her and the similar letters from Antonina and his own response. Tchaikovsky’s emendations of Pushkin reinforce the biographical connections, as life became an odd counterpoint to art in the creation of his new opera, or, as he preferred, “lyric scenes.”

The inevitably disastrous marriage of Tchaikovsky and Milyukova took place in July, 1877. The composer almost immediately fled the relationship, although he never divorced Antonina. He completed the sketches for Onegin during his correspondence with Antonina, and, after a break to compose his Fourth Symphony, finished orchestrating the opera in the early months of 1878, while travelling in Italy in the emotionally highly charged aftermath of the marriage.

Onegin is a group of telling, deeply felt character portraits in the context of a sharp social critique. Tchaikovsky thought that what he had created was so unusual that it would not be done properly by conventional professional performers, so the premiere took place in March, 1879, with students from the Moscow Conservatory, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky created most of the libretto himself (with help from his friend Konstantin Shilovsky), retaining Pushkin’s verse wherever possible. It is condensed and episodic; one reason for the “lyric scenes” rubric.

The first two acts take place on the country estate of the Larin family, where the sisters Tatyana and Olga live. Olga’s fiancé Lensky arrives with his friend Eugene Onegin, to whom Tatyana is immediately attracted. At night, Tatyana pours her pent-up feelings in a letter to Onegin.

When he subsequently replies that he can give her only a brotherly affection and that she should be more discreet about revealing so much, she is crushed to silence.

Act II begins with a ball celebrating Tatyana’s name day, attended by Onegin and Lensky. Bored and irritated by the soirée, Onegin dances and flirts with Olga. Lensky becomes jealously enraged, Olga exacer- bates the situation by telling Lensky he is over-reacting, and the two friends quarrel publicly, to the point that Lensky chal- lenges Onegin to a duel and the ball ends in horrified confusion. The next morning, both men regret the confrontation but are honor bound to go through with the duel, and Onegin kills Lensky.

Act III takes place several years later, at a noble house in St. Petersburg – an upscale version of the country party that began  Act II. Onegin, returned from an exile self-imposed in remorse, is astonished to find that the beautiful hostess is Tatyana, now married to a prince. Onegin realizes that he does indeed love Tatyana, and now writes a letter to her. When they meet later, Tatyana admits that she does still love him, but refuses to leave her husband, instead leaving Onegin alone and shattered.

— John Henken