A case study on Graham Vick’s opera production Eugene Onegin, after Pushkin’s novel and Tchaikovsky’s music.
by Luciana B. Veit
European adventurers brought duelling to Russia in the seventeen century, but the majority of duelling occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Irina Reyfman states that, at that time, “a passion for duelling permeated all segments of polite society and the duel became a working mechanism for resolving all kinds of conflicts, both serious and trivial.” Essayist Nick Moran suggests that the golden age of duelling coincided with the golden age of Russian poetry, which could explain the origin of the heroic idea of duelling. Before duels vanished from Russia in late nineteenth century, brave gentlemen were expected to respect duelling rules: duels were illegal, so secrecy was imperative; their weapons should be the same; and they would either fight until the first bleeding or death (it was the prerogative of challenger to decide). Duellists would fight someone of their rank or below them. Douglas Smith explains that Russians were difficult to control, and thus “duelling was an attempt to limit and control violence and restore honor.”
In the opera Eugene Onegin, the silent code of honour of the aristocracy forces Lensky to a challenge with Onegin. Having been shamed, public opinion becomes more important for Lensky than peaceful resolution to the trivial misunderstanding. Onegin blames the society for the duel too: he only danced with Olga to stop the country people from gossiping about him and Tatiana, and not truly to seduce his friend’s fiancé. The aim of Eugene Onegin is not to portray Lensky as a bretteur and Onegin as Casanova. Nevertheless, both characters were very much aware of the honour of the situation, as outlined by Douglas Smith, where “the image of a duellist embodied the true gentlemen, because they were the ones who lived and died by the honour code.”
The duel scene opens with the same melody (although different lyrics), as when Lensky declared his love to Olga. Here, it evokes pain and the urge to scream. The reason for Tchaikovsky choosing the same melody is, perhaps, to remind the audience that both friends will duel, ostensibly, because of Olga. Ironically, Onegin doesn’t want to duel for Olga’s love, but to prove he’s a gentleman. Lensky also seeks some sort of heroic acknowledgement from society, although he could die for Olga’s love. In the aria, Lensky cries out aloud that it was to Olga that he “devoted the sad dawn of a stormy life:” a true picture of a romantic poet, his poetic wildness visually symbolized by his long and wavy hair.
As the instrumental music develops, the set reveals itself through a dark and transparent organza curtain, which opens slowly as the light also goes up. The stage is bare, with only some hay to show that the setting is a barn, and evoking a lonely place at dawn in wintertime. Lensky and his second man, Zaretsky, are already present, waiting for Onegin. Two doors and the cold light upstage suggest the winter sun rising outside, while the backcloth in bluish-gray colour is reminds the audience of the cold weather. Inside the barn is dark, echoing the way Lensky feels, and providing a symbol of approaching death. The shadows are longer than the actual bodies of those onstage, which creates an unsettling atmosphere.
Onegin’s late arrival, his choice of Mr. Guillot (his valet) as second man and the state of his clothes (no tie and an open collar) demonstrate disdain toward the idea of duelling, which he finds insane. Lensky, however, might have spent the night at the barn reflecting on his “golden days of youth:” he is sitting on the floor with a letter he wrote to Olga, and is wearing the same clothes as the night before. When Zaretsky announces Onegin’s arrival, Lensky stands up promptly but doesn’t say a word to him, and Onegin rushes to duel. Torgovitskaya observes that:
In the duel scene in the novel, the narrator speaks of Onegin’s remorse and sorrow. Tchaikovsky doesn’t leave Onegin any time even to grieve over the dead body of his friend.
Michael Walling supports Torgovitskaya indirectly, I assume, when he asserts that “Tchaikovsky makes Onegin very unsympathetic.” Despite being unsympathetic, Onegin suffers when seeing both second men checking the pistols. So, Onegin and Lensky sing the “Enemy” cannon with the only visible light in the barn coming from outside. Onegin is on the light and Lensky in the darker side: either Vick placed Onegin on the light (stage left) because he is the lead, or because he wanted to show that Onegin as a character is not evil. While they sing, they stare at the audience, afraid of looking at each other. They sing that “the thirst for blood drives us apart,” when the truth is that the society, with its unnecessary and brutal habits and gossiping, is to blame.
When they ask: “cannot we be friends?” their repetitive answer is a sad, questioning and unconvincing “no,” unlike the very last one, which is final and certain. Onegin rushes to Zaretsky and grabs the pistol. Lensky follows in a slightly slower march. They come together, back on back, pistols at hand. The instrumental music translates how miserable they’re feeling in this silent last moment together. Lensky even tries to look back: probably to say “I’m sorry,” or “let’s forget about it,” but he doesn’t because Onegin, not knowing Lensky’s thoughts, begins the first of the previously agreed number of steps to the shooting position as he can no longer stand the suffering. When Lensky does the same, the audience only sees Zaretsky and Guillot, because both enemies are hidden behind the wooden doors.
The music now escalates, as Torgotivskaya describes, in “repetitive sequences that lead up to the climax to the single gunshot,” supporting the anxiety experienced by both characters and the audience. According to Alexis Solenki, “a really convincing theatrical death is better left unseen,” as this increases the tension and the theatrical credibility, and that is the case with Vick’s Onegin. Because Onegin’s second man exits the visible stage to check on his master first, the audience assumes that Onegin is dead. When he re-appears alone, asking if Lensky is dead, he becomes even more unsympathetic for having survived. Zaretsky’s confirmation of Lensky’s death sounds like a ghostly voice from beyond this world. Author I.L. Brodsky offers an explanation for Pushkin’s decision to kill Lensky, suggesting that Lensky’s “character is tender, full of hopes and of an unassuming nature. Such a person doesn’t belong in Russia.” Having resided in Moscow, I completely sympathise with Brodsky analysis.
Alone, Onegin walks slowly towards downstage centre without any facial expression, as if he doesn’t feel his body, as if he had turned to ice. This long walk without direction in the empty space happens while curtains fall, signalling intermission. This couldn’t be more favourable, because it’s not only the end of the second act, but also the end of Lensky’s life and the end of Onegin’s joy in life. Are Onegin’s crimes so bad, I ask? At the beginning of the opera he didn’t love Tatiana back and later on played a trick of jealousy on a friend. Although certainly not model behaviour, Onegin’s punishment of eternal loneliness doesn’t seem to match his crimes, as he never wanted the duel in the first place.
Alexander Pushkin belonged to Russian aristocracy and had fought twenty-nine duels in his life. He died in a duel, having challenged the French officer Georges d’Anthès for having seduced his wife, Nathalia. The similarities of Pushkin’s true-life story to Eugene Onegin are abundant. However, his life isn’t the only story that resembles the plot. Tchaikovsky is known to have disliked Eugene Onegin, yet he chose this subject for one of his operas forty years after the novel was published. His motivation could have been the similarities to his own life when he wrote Eugene Onegin.
Tchaikovsky had married Antonina, who sent him a letter proclaiming her love (just like Tatiana to Onegin). After three months of marriage, Tchaikovsky asked his doctor brother to declare Antonina “unstable and a nymphomaniac,” as Peter Mark’s study evaluates. She was locked away for a few months and later Tchaikovsky divorced her. However, Tchaikovsky was gay and it seems that he only married to deceive society. Given that as recently as 1989 “thirty-one percent of Russians said in polls that homosexuals should be executed,” the situation in Tchaikovsky’s time must have been dire. Homosexuality has been considered a crime in Russia since the eighteenth century until 1993: “Article 995 stated muzhelozhstvo (or men lying with men) a criminal act punishable by exile to Siberia for up to 5 years.”
Regardless of Tchaikovsky’s sexual tendencies and Pushkin’s bretteur image, Eugene Onegin remains a worldwide classic, offering topics of discussion and themes that remain relevant today, as already mentioned in this essay.
Luciana B. Veit