In the build-up to the French premiere of Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin in Nice in 1895, critics, speakers and writers on music were declaring the opera a masterpiece of psychological realism. Such a reading seems to resonate more with recent assessments of the opera; but in 1890s France, a combination of interest in the Russian realist novel and new trends in realist opera had led critics to make the literary link already. With the Franco-Russian Alliance recently finalized and hostility towards the Triplice mounting, many even suggested that the opera might form the lyric equivalent of the Russian realist novel and, in so doing, offer a morally and politically superior alternative to the so-called verismo operas of the new Italian school.
The optimism surrounding Onegin, I'd like to show, was part of a broader move in late nineteenth-century France to celebrate cosmopolitanism, if not in the sense one might expect. Tchaikovsky and Onegin were very much deemed representatively Russian. What was cosmopolitan, and in turn modern, was the act of cultural transfer – exploiting international personal networks – and the opera's realism: its evocations of ordinary life and of the contemporary psychological condition. As such, a Russian opera like this could be applauded not for its revelations of an exotic or disconnected country, but for the potential it posed to integrate with and revitalize French culture.