Act I begins with the sounds of a duet drifting from inside the house. The sisters, Olga and Tatiana, are singing a verse by Pushkin, "Slïkhalil´ vï…vdokhnulil´ vï´" (Have you not heard…have you not sighed), accompanied by the harp. Outside, their mother Larina, who is sitting with her old nursemaid, Filippievna, is inspired to think of her youth and marriage and the importance of literature in her life. A chorus ensues, singing in traditional folk polyphony, "´Bolyat moi skorï nozhen´ ki so pokhodushki´" (My nimble feet are sore from walking), as Madame Larina's serfs return from the fields. A single voice heard from afar begins the choral number. In response the chorus sings a modal melody with parallel and contrary motion. They perform the Dance of the Peasants singing, "Uzh kak po mostu-mostochku´ (Across the little bridge). The first folk song was composed by Tchaikovsky, but the second stems from oral tradition. The peasants take their leave as Olga begins a scena and aria, "Ya ne sposobna k grusti tomnoy," (I am no good at languid melancholy). Olga compares herself with her sister Tatiana who is occupied with deep thoughts. Larina frets over Tatiana's introversion. Filippievna announces the arrival of guests.
Lensky and his sophisticated friend Onegin are presented to Olga and Tatiana. The four embark on a quartet, the two men and the sisters in respective pairs. Simultaneously, the men discuss the girls and Tatiana is sure that Onegin is the special someone for whom she yearns. They begin to walk together, Onegin with Tatiana and Lensky with Olga. In an arioso Lensky declares his love for Olga, "Ya lyublyu vas, Olga," (I love you, Olga). The descending scale motif is heard at the beginning of Lensky's scene and arioso. Onegin and Tatiana stroll back into view, Tatiana hanging on Onegin's every word. He finds rural life very boring. In a cynical fashion Onegin relates the story of the unexpected death of his uncle that resulted in his inheritance of the estate nearby. As they walk, Filippievna speculates about Tatiana's feelings toward this new man.
Tatiana has retired to her bedroom in a restless mood. The scene's introduction is based on Tatiana's motif. Tatiana asks Filippievna about love and her own experience with love and marriage. Tatiana is unsatisfied with her nurse's answers, finding them very unromantic. Tatiana asks for writing paper and pens and then sends the old nurse away. Tatiana spends the night composing a letter to Onegin in a lengthy 12-minute aria, called the Letter Scene, "Puskay pogibnu ya," (Even if it means I perish). She pours her very soul into declaring her love for Onegin. Additional musical motifs are introduced that recur in the opera, including the "fate" descending scale motif. As the early dawn breaks, an oboe melody is heard, representing a shepherd's pipe. The melody is an authentic shepherd's tune. Filippievna enters and finds Tatiana awake. She is asked to send the letter to Onegin.
An anxious Tatiana waits for Onegin's response as she listens to some peasant girls singing a folksong. Onegin arrives and tells her he was touched by her letter and that if he wished to marry he would certainly choose her. Then he admonishes Tatiana for her lack of self-control. He is gentle but cold in his demeanor. He also tells her that he feels only brotherly love for her, leaving Tatiana stunned and speechless. Onegin proffers his arm and leads the humiliated Tatiana away. The earlier music of the peasant girls frames the scene.
An entr'acte based on the central theme of the Letter Scene opens the scene, where guests are assembled at the Larin Estate to celebrate Tatiana's birthday. A waltz plays as the guests chatter and gossip. Onegin hears the gossip and is annoyed that Lensky insisted they attend the ball. Onegin makes mischief, asking Olga to dance. Olga flirts with Onegin, upsetting Lensky. She has promised the cotillion to Onegin. Onegin makes goading comments to Lensky who is so offended that he renounces his friendship with Onegin. The men quarrel and Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. The descending scale motif is heard. The largest ensemble in the opera, a quintet with chorus, ensues. Tatiana, Olga, Larina, Lensky and Onegin and assembled guests all express their shock, dismay and regret over this unexpected event. Lensky rushes out of the ballroom followed closely by Onegin.
The introduction to the duel scene is based on Lensky's aria from the first act. Lensky and his second await the arrival of Onegin at the place designated for the duel. Lensky sings a farewell to Olga, "Kuda, kuda, vï udalilis," (Whither, ah, whither are ye fled). Some consider this the finest aria written for tenor in Russian opera. Onegin arrives late in a somewhat insulting manner. The two men stand back-to-back awaiting the signal to advance. They sing a duet in the form of a canon which is set apart by half a bar. They sing the same words, which are filled with regret, but the distance between them is stated musically by the uneven canon. At the end of the duet they question whether they should call off the duel. The response, "Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet," (No, no, no, no) seals their fate. The duel commences. When Onegin fires his pistol, he realizes with dismay that he has killed his friend.
Several years have passed; Onegin has returned to St. Petersburg after a lengthy trip abroad. Onegin attends a grand ball at the home of Prince Gremin. A polonaise is being danced. At the age of 26, he bitterly states that he has done nothing with his life, "I zdyes mnye skuchno!" (I'm bored here too). His ennui combined with his guilt over the death of Lensky has never left him. Another dance, an ecossaise (Scottish-style contredance) begins. Prince and Princess Gremin enter and greet their guests. Onegin recognizes Tatiana and cannot believe his eyes. She bears herself like a queen and is so at ease. He asks Prince Gremin about her and is told that she is his wife of two years. Gremin shares his love for Tatiana in the aria, "Lyubvi vsye vozrastï pokornï´," (Love is no respecter of age). Onegin and Tatiana meet with calm demeanor though both are affected by this unexpected encounter. Tatiana asks to be excused and leaves the ball. Onegin realizes he loves her and sings the aria, "´Uv;iuml;, somnen ´ya net´" (Alas, there is no doubt). Tchaikovsky establishes the sad irony of the situation by recapitulating the blissful opening music of Tatiana's Letter Scene.
Tatiana receives a letter from Onegin confessing his love. She is distressed, tremulous and feels a rising passion. She begins to weep. Onegin bursts in. They begin their final duet though it must be noted that it is not a conventional duet. Their two voices are heard singing together only briefly. There are no love duets in Eugene Onegin. Tatiana reminds Onegin of his attitude years earlier. He begs forgiveness. She admits she stills loves him and he seizes the moment to entreat her to leave her marriage. Even though her heart is with him, she refuses to dishonor her husband. When Tatiana declares she will leave the room, Onegin cries out the same words that separated him from Lensky, "Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet!" (No, no, no, no). After a tumultuous confrontation, Tatiana leaves Onegin to his fate and bids him farewell forever.
Courtesy of Virginia Opera