Some fans of Alexander Pushkin’s great and iconic verse novel Eugene Onegin can’t stomach Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky’s operatic version. Too much of the master Russian author’s brilliance is lost, they say, in the opera’s simplified libretto, written in only nine days.
Pushkin’s 1833 novel is a text that “divides Russian literature into a ‘before’ and ‘after.’”[i] Contemporaries called it an “encyclopedia of Russian society.” Eugene Onegin is a highly complex text, featuring self-commentary, meta-textuality, allusions to other texts, and parody of both pre-Romantic and Romantic European literature.
Even while composing Tchaikovsky felt he might be committing a sacrilege to Russia’s Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe all rolled up in one literary genius. In fact, critics believe Tchaikovsky read into Pushkin the sentiments he himself held, replacing those of Pushkin. The operatic characters occasionally exhibit more sweetness, melancholy and resignation than their literary counterparts.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky’s love for the novel and his own glorious music make the opera both a masterpiece in and of itself, and a significant opportunity for skilled performers to fill in the narrative and psychological blanks left by the opera’s libretto.
When the great Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky produced the opera in 1922 critics realized the opportunity Tchaikovsky’s opera offered the singing actors:
The singers have complete control of the principle of recitativo, tonal declamation, and have adapted it even to the most complex ensemble singing without infringing in the slightest degree on basic polyphonic performance…The work harbors within itself the renaissance of Russian opera theatre.
So diverse are today’s Eugene Onegins that they sometimes seem like different stories. For example, the recent Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Eugene Onegin could not have been more different than the Metropolitan Opera’s current production. In both versions, the singing was uniformly outstanding. The differences came through the boldness of the interpretations of character.
While Anna Maria Martinez focused on the heroine’s innocence and naïve youth, Anna Netrebko presented a woman seemingly hypnotized by a man. Netrebko’s handling of the famous letter scene was almost an incantation of supernatural powers to come to her aid in bringing about her desired connection with Onegin. The singer suggested the passion of Lady Macbeth summoning of dark forces and Edmund’s soliloquy in King Lear (“Thou nature art my goddess…”). As she sends the letter off to Onegin, her eyes have the same look as Medea’s eyes when she sends the golden robes to Glauce – the anticipation of triumphant victory through supernatural collaboration.
Netrebko’s Tatiana, never a victim, is conceived of as a force of nature who will not be trifled with.
So powerful is this Tatiana, director Deborah Warner often has the singer play scenes with her full back to the audience, including the beginning of the letter scene. Director Warner tempers Netrebko’s power with bits of inventive pantomimic dramatization to show how this demi-goddess of a character can be tripped up by her own humanity. For example, after sending Onegin the letter, Netrebko chances upon a few discarded pages of letter, only to find her anticipated triumph overwhelmed by mortification.
Netrebko’s brilliant Tatiana is an interpretation for the ages.
Finally, before leaving the crushed and groveling Onegin, Netrebko’s Tatiana gives him a long, intense and passionate kiss, only to drive home to him what might have been had be not treated her as child.
Peter Mattei’s Onegin is an interpretation which clearly shows the character’s affinity with Chekhov’s Doctor Astrov in his Uncle Vanya. Mattei’s Onegin is a recovering dissolute philanderer, an odd, but appealing cross between Rhett Butler and Jeff “The Duke” Lebowski. His best friend Lenski, is wonderfully played by Alexey Dolgov as a young and bookish David Hyde Pierce/Richard Thomas. Their duel is cruel and heartbreaking. After a movingly sung self-elegy, Lenski is shot and killed by his best friend without even getting off a shot of his own.
Deborah Warner’s scenic collaborators Tom Pye and Chloe Obolensky make bold and exciting choices about scene and costume. All work together to convey that this is not just another production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This Met production is a fascinating reinterpretation.
[i] Renate Lachmann, “Alexander Pushkin’s Novel in Verse, Eugene Onegin, and Its Legacy in the Work of Vladimir Nabokov”