This week is all about letters.
Handwritten letters are personal. They are intimate. While sending a text message or an email has become the norm today, opera loves their handwritten letters. And who can blame them? I imagine I am not the only one who gets excited when they see they’ve received one of these in the mail. There is something special about a letter.
Today we’re listening to Renée Fleming sing “Puskai pogibnu ya” also known as Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Act I of the Russian opera Eugene Onegin by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. It’s a long scene, so the YouTube video below is teed up (17:00) to the big moment at the end, but I promise you it’s all worth it.
🎧 Listen here (final aria 4 minute listen, full scene 20 minute listen):
Tchaikovsky's most popular opera, Eugene Onegin is based on the novel Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. The libretto doesn’t stray much from the original text.
The opera is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 1700s. Eugene Onegin comes to the home of Madame Larina and her two daughters Tatyana (you’ll sometimes see it spelled Tatiana) and Olga. Tatyana (soprano), who is very shy, finds herself infatuated with their newly-arrived neighbor Onegin (baritone) on the spot. Tatyana decides that the only way to express her love for Onegin is to write him a letter to explain her feelings towards him. Tatyana is not afraid to dig deep and expose her innermost thoughts. As she writes, you can sense her excitement and also trepidation, given the consequences of telling Onegin her feelings. But she doesn’t care, she goes for it and it is beautiful to witness. Unfortunately, Onegin refuses Tatyana, but eventually, Onegin realizes that he actually is in love with Tatyana. Will it be too late? Will Tatyana embrace the man she longed for as a young woman (despite now being married herself)? Every decision has consequences. Just as in real life, the characters in Eugene Onegin are faced with situations that compel them to choose one path over another.
You don’t need to understand Russian to understand what Tatyana is going through here. You can hear it in her voice but also in the orchestra. You will hear a repeated melody that transforms over the course of the scene. Tchaikovsky uses the orchestra to represent Tatyana’s emotional state — the strings mimic her heartbeat, the oboe and the flute mimic her writing, and the harp represents the motion of her refilling her pen in ink.
Based on Alexander Pushkin text, all the main characters appear to be very young. At the beginning of the opera, Eugene Onegin is 26, Lensky is 17, and Tatyana is only 13 years old. By the end of the opera, Tatyana is probably about 17 years old.
It appears that Tatyana wrote her letter to Onegin in French because her written Russian was not good enough. At that time, French was the language of “high society” in Russia, and for Tatyana, French was her primary language.
While this week’s theme had been on the books for a while, this scene was shared by several Opera Daily members last week when we asked for recommendations, so cheers 🥂 to your good taste. This one is a beauty.
To all the veterans out there, and to those who continue to serve…thank you for your service and sacrifice today and everyday.
Thank you again for listening,
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