Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Pytor Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is not eponymous. The play is named, not, as Dostoyevsky famously argued, for the play’s main character, but rather for the character who sets the main character in action.
The main character in Tchaikovsky’s opera is, instead, the country girl, Tatiana Larina.
And Tatiana might owe her characterization to a girl who stalked the great composer.
In the late 1870s Pytor Tchaikovsky began receiving passionate love letters from a young woman, a former student of his, twenty-eight-year-old Antonina Milyukova. In one of her letters Antonina threatened suicide if the composer didn’t reciprocate her love. At a loss, Tchaikovsky married the young girl in July 1877.
He wrote to his sister during his honeymoon:
After three days with them in the country, I begin to see that everything I can’t stand in my wife derives from her beginning to a completely weird family, where the mother was always arguing with the father—and now, after his death, does not hesitate to malign his memory in every way possible. It’s a family in which the mother hates (!!!) some of her own children, in which the sisters are constantly squabbling, in which the only son has completely fallen out with his mother and all his sisters, etc., etc.
The marriage failed. Tchaikovsky suffered a nervous breakdown. But he began to compose Eugene Onegin, an opera based on the great Puskin poem of the same name, the Russian hallmark of Romanticism.
One of the most discussed and elusive female characters in the Russian literary tradition, Alexandr Pushkin’s Tatiana Larina became Tchaikovsky’s focus of attention. She is the progenitor of an impressive list of heroines, ranging from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Pasternak’s Lara Guishar in Doctor Zhivago.
Tatiana’s wide dramatic arc needs a singing actress of great skill and beauty.
The Lyric Opera has just such a wonderful artist in Ana Maria Martinez.
Ms. Martinez’s captures Tatiana’s strong, beautiful nature from her naive maidenhood, through her famous unrequited letter to Eugene, to the final act, in which, transmogrified, she resurfaces as the grande dame of St. Petersburg high society.
Martinez as Tatyana and the role-defining Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin exchange positions of power at the end of the opera. Martinez doesn’t become quite as grim and frozen as Onegin was in the First Act (she still loves him, after all) and gets her revenge by acting toward him in the same way he once treated her.
The scene is one of the production’s high points.
Martinez shows the psychological development of Tatiana from a wistful, contemplative, and withdrawn dreaming, and dreamy, daughter of a provincial landowner, to a mature, world-wise wife. Throughout, she retains the pure, honest heart of her country upbringing. In this way, Ms. Martinez echoes the stunning portrayal by Caroline Neff of Sonya in the Goodman Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Martinez’s Tatiana is the opera’s strong through-line of action upon which this lovely production sails to success.
Kwiecien’s Onegin brilliantly embodies the haughty and easily bored Russian urbanite, like a young Serebryakov from the afore-mentioned Uncle Vanya. His performance should not be missed.
All of the roles are given excellent renditions. Alisa Kolosova’s Olga is a perky, sassy counterpart to Tatiana, and Charles Castronovo’s Lensky is a dynamic solid citizen and friend, wonderfully contrasting his expedient “best friend” Onegin. Castronovo’s aria “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” Куда, куда вы удалились, весны моей златые дни stops the show.
Robert Carsen’s beautiful abstract production, with magnificent sets and costumes by Michael Levine, are wonderful to see, with its tall and bare walls, softly colored lighting, crucial scenes done in silhouette and, in the first act, the entire stage floor covered with fallen autumn leaves. (The birch trees lining th front of the stage are a beautiful illustration of the Fibonacci sequence in stage design.) Christine Binder’s lighting moves the dynamic mood with subtlety and theatricalism, under which revival director Paula Suozzi shows her mastery of stage composition, picturization, and movement.
Pushkin and Tchaikovsky challenged the Romantic tenet of the inevitability of sorrow in the pursuit of love by having Tatiana champion the older virtue of duty, in much the same way that Aeneas does in Berlioz’ The Trojans.
Contrary to what The Beatles sang, Love, in Tatiana’s world, is Not All You Need.
Duty remains her supreme, and saving, virtue.