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PREVIEW: Skylark’s Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s Operatic Life

A sketch by Alexander Pushkin for Eugene Onegin, showing the dueling scene.

On March 25, Skylark Opera Theatre opens its pandemic-delayed production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This vivid opera, adapting the Pushkin novel of the same name, explores the full force of Russian Romanticism in its story and score. It also holds a special place in the heart of Pushkin fans: much of the opera libretto retains Pushkin’s original verses, and several aspects of the story fatally parallel the author’s own life.

The novel Eugene Onegin, first serialized starting in 1825, is not only a cornerstone of Russian literature, but of world literature. There are more than four dozen published translations into English; a dozen each in German and Chinese; eight in French; and a half dozen in Japanese. Its place in popular culture continues to be cemented by adaptation into film, stage plays and musicals, ballets, and by the enduring popularity of Tchaikovsky’s operatic adaptation.

As first written, the full opera delves first into the life of Tatyana, a young woman who has grown up in the Russian countryside, dreaming of city sophistications, before introducing the men who will complicate the plot: best friends Lensky (a poet) and Eugene Onegin (a bored city dweller and loner who has recently inherited his fortune). Lensky decides to marry Tatyana’s sister Olga; Onegin, in turn, spurns Tatyana and tells her that she is boring.

Over the course of three acts, Onegin’s lack of tact comes back to bite him in the worst possible ways. After dancing with his best friend’s (now) wife and ignoring some cues, Onegin ends up fighting a duel with Lensky – and killing him. More isolated than ever, he finds himself – years later – meeting the sophisticated woman of his dreams. Alas, he knows her already: it is Tatyana, now matured into a charming and sophisticated woman, and she is now married to someone else. A desperate Onegin tries writing Tatyana to confess his attraction, as she did once to him, only to be spurned in turn. The complete opera unfolds in roughly 200 minutes of music in a style befitting a grand opera house.

Not so Skylark’s adaptation by director Gary Briggle, told in the intimate space of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. In the spirit of prior adaptations like The Tragedy of Carmen, Skylark’s Onegin cuts through the expansive setting to a razor-sharp focus on four characters: Onegin, Tatyana; Tatyana’s sister Olga; and Olga’s fiancé, the poet Lensky. Sweeping society balls and expansive wanderings give way to the psychodrama infusing story.

“The psychological details [are really] captured in Tchaikovsky’s music, the mood and character,” said Briggle. These, he noted, “are where the real drama lies in Eugene Onegin.”

Moesey Li’s Death of the poet (A.S. Pushkin) (1987).

Those details were dear both to the composer and the original author – dearly held and dearly bought. Tchaikovsky, a homosexual man, was so swept up that he decided to reread to an old love letter from former music student, which had heretofore rested unanswered. The idea of a sweeping heterosexual society romance went to his head, and Tchaikovsky penned a reply. Soon, they were married – but the marriage was a disaster, with the composer trying to drown himself just weeks later and his wife Antonina spending her last years in an asylum.

Pushkin’s own biography shows even stronger parallels. In 1825, the same year that Eugene Onegin first began to appear in serial form, he met and became fast friends with the poet and kindred spirit Adam Mickiewicz. A few years later, Pushkin began courting Natalia Goncharova, whom contemporaries called one of the most beautiful women in Moscow. After they married, Pushkin became bitterly jealous of the courtesies and affections shown to his wife, interpreting many of them as slights against his person.

In Eugene Onegin, Onegin dances repeatedly with Lensky’s wife Olga, causing the poet to suspect extramarital intentions. A challenge to a duel is issued, and Onegin kills his now-estranged friend. In real life, Pushkin suspected his brother-in-law of amorous designs on Natalia; as he was putting the finishing touches on a revised edition of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin challenged his brother-in-law to a duel. Friends proving unable (as in the novel) to resolve the issue due to a cascade of perceived slights, the two met and Pushkin was shot in the stomach. He died two days later.

Skylark Opera Theatre’s production of Eugene Onegin runs March 25-27 and April 1-3, 2022 at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine