Tatyana, a young country girl of obscure family given to romantic dreaming, falls suddenly for Yevgeny, an older, more worldly neighbour. Impulsively, she sends him a passionate declaration of love. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879) – inspired by a verse novel of Pushkin – pivots on his response to the letter, delivered in person later that day. To Tatyana’s growing dismay, Onegin condescends. He is flattered by her proposal: if he were to fall in love with anyone it would be her! But, he loftily explains, his heart is hardened against emotions. He cannot love her, except perhaps as a brother (!). It is as well that he, a man of honour, was the letter’s recipient; another, less scrupulous, might have taken advantage. The music suggests he may have meant this kindly but Tatyana wants a lover not a moral advisor. She is left despairing and humiliated.
Alfred Allmers, ‘landed proprietor and man of letters’, comes back from a long holiday hiking in Norway’s mountains. We quickly learn from Rita Allmers how long he has neglected her emotionally and physically. Now, on his return, he goes one further. He has not written the book he went away to write but has found a new purpose to his life, he tells her. From now on he will devote himself entirely to their crippled son Eyolf. The appalled Rita, whom Alfred has been avoiding, knows this is a mortal threat to her happiness. In this autumn’s wonderful Almeida production she opens her dress to reveal her breasts in an unavailing attempt to stir the stodgy Alfred. Director Richard Eyre’s dramatic coup de theatre is justified by the text of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1894): we later learn that the boy’s injury derives from a cradle injury while the neglectful couple were making love. Eyolf, desperate for companionship among local boys swimming on the beach, later drowns.
The scornful Onegin receives his quittance. He quarrels with his best friend Lensky, whose fiancée he has casually romanced. Too stiff – as ever – to appease the outraged Lensky he kills him in a duel. Now he must flee for years of empty womanising in exile. On his return he goes to a ball attended by his distant and distinguished relative Prince Gremin. Gremin has lately married and the startled Onegin discovers his bride to be Tatyana herself. Thrown into confusion and violent desire, he takes the first opportunity to declare his love. But Tatyana reminds him of his scornful treatment of her younger self. Her eventual rejection of him is no tit-for-tat: she is tempted by Onegin’s passionate outburst. Yet she knows Gremin genuinely loves her whereas Onegin spurned his chance long ago. In faint echo of the sad musings of her mother that open the opera, she chooses duty over passion and remains faithful. Onegin’s motives are ambiguous. Tchaikovsky leaves us to decide whether he is animated by true love or envy of Tatyana’s newly-elevated status. But it is he who ends the opera in despair.
Rita Allmers comes close to seeing her son as a rival (how mercilessly Ibsen observes mothers and sons). Yet Eyolf’s death by drowning leads to no physical reunion with her husband. They stay together not through mutual desire but to fulfil a social obligation by caring for the poor children of the village. Thus public duty trumps private desire, at least on Rita’s part. Onegin (and later Tatyana) stifle private desire with private obligation. True romantic love is represented by Lensky who is besotted by Olga, Tatyana’s older sister. In killing Lensky, Onegin kills romantic love too. Duty and love are poor bedfellows.
The Allmers once consummated their love but something – perhaps the birth of little Eyolf, perhaps Alfred’s unholy interest in his step-sister – has soured it. Onegin’s stolid treatment of Tatyana means they can never enjoy each other. Lensky’s death robs him of Olga: his haunting lament for lost life and love is rhapsodically sung by the fine young tenor Michael Fabiano. In the Royal Opera House’s unjustly criticised production – one of Kaspar Holten’s last before he leaves in 2017 – Onegin’s loveless philandering is depicted through dance. The fine ROH chorus and orchestra under Semyon Bychkov excel here, as throughout.
Onegin, lacking self-knowledge, must return home to learn why his life is empty. In the title role Dmitri Hvorostovsky does not have the best tunes. How can there be rhapsody for a man who puts romance second? Tchaikovsky’s opera is a threnody to unacted desires: better murder an infant in its cradle than cherish one of those. Ibsen’s great play suggests that the Allmers, albeit indirectly, might have done just that. Eyolf dies in any case. Little Eyolf is concentrated in time and place; Eugene Onegin spans the vastness of Russia. The play is taut, economically written, concentrated; the opera is languorous, romantic and lush. But both express the folly of the morally upright. In ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ Richard Rodgers wrote tunefully of a man who ‘horizontally speaking (is) at his very best’. Alfred and Yevgeny, prig and snob, are vertical men who kill the thing they love.