Onegin’s Fathers

Date posted: October 4, 2017

IT WAS WINTER IN ST. PETERSBURG, AND I WAS IN LOVE. Fur hats. Ornate palaces. The Neva River under fresh snow. Travelling with my parents and sister, I’d fallen in love at first sight with our tour-guide, Marat, a local university student. He was a literature major; I lived reclusively in books. Back at the hotel, on pretext of helping me out of the car, he pressed a note into my trembling, gloved hand: “Meet me at the Pushkin Monument. At Midnight.” It was the most romantic moment of my life.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is Russia’s Shakespeare: begetter of its language, creator of its best-known stories and characters, touchstone for its moral and romantic imagination. Like Shakespeare, he has also inspired countless adaptations by other artists—operas, ballets, symphonies, musicals, films. His works range from plays like Boris Godunov and Mozart and Salieri (source for Amadeus), to short stories like The Queen of Spades, to long poems like The Gypsies (inspiration, alone, for some 25 musical works including Bizet’s Carmen). Like Rimski-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky set Pushkin’s words to music repeatedly. Most famously, in 1878, he wrote an opera based on Pushkin’s 1833 novel Evgeny Onegin.

The great-grandson of a black African from (present-day) Cameroon, Pushkin was 24 when he began this “half-comic, half-tragic” novel in rhyming verse. In the title character, Onegin, Pushkin created both an imitation and a parody of the Byronic hero. He depicts his Russian Don Juan as a gloomy, cynical 18-year-old who’s indifferent to life but so stylish about it that he takes three hours to get dressed (owing, in part, to his 30 different nail-, hair-, and tooth-brushes). That’s the comedy. The tragedy is that this rich, absurdly jaded hipster succeeds in ruining everyone’s life, including his own.

Through his friend Lensky—a long-haired, emotional, Schiller-worshipping poet, a “delightful fool” in every way his opposite—Onegin meets Tatiana, a naïve, bookish introvert. She falls for Onegin on contact, and writes him a passionate letter. He coolly crushes her hopes. In a fit of spleen he then provokes a fatal duel with Lensky, Tatiana’s sister’s fiancé. Having nicely destroyed everyone in Tatiana’s household, Onegin goes abroad. When by chance years later he spots Tatiana in Petersburg, the tables are turned: she’s now a dazzling woman, and he falls hard in love. She’s married, and rejects him, narrowly dodging a bullet with her name on it.

But when Tchaikovsky, an unhappy gay man of 37, sat down to compose Onegin, his attitude to the story was less ambivalent, less ironic, less mocking than Pushkin’s. Tchaikovsky was simply and purely “stirred to the depth of [his] heart.” Completely identifying with Tatiana’s love and longing for Onegin, he set the work to ravishingly melodic music, “driven,” he says, “by an irresistible emotional need.”

Evgeny Onegin left a curious mark on both creators’ biographies. Like Lensky, Pushkin would himself be killed in a senseless duel involving jealousy at a name-day party, sisters, and the arcane rules of honour. Just before starting Onegin, Tchaikovsky had received a passionate love-letter from an innocent young woman admirer of his own; afraid of behaving like a heartless Onegin, he took time out from composing the opera to marry her. (The marriage was a disaster.)

As for me, I did not go to the Pushkin Monument in St. Petersburg that night, on fire as I was. In my twenties at the time, I knew the level-headed novel only, not the opera, and suspected that, like Tatiana, I’d be disappointed. Had I first encountered Onegin through the Romantic music of Tchaikovsky—or through this thrilling version by Gladstone and Hille—I might have risked it.

Jennifer Wise is an award-winning playwright, translator, and associate professor of theatre history at UVic.