By Noel Morris
Eugene Onegin still surprises audiences for what it’s not: there’s no melodrama; it’s not exotic. It’s not a spectacle, nor is it action-packed. “How glad I am to be free of Egyptian princesses, pharaohs, poisonings, and stilted effects of all kinds,” the composer quipped. For Tchaikovsky, this was an opportunity to “convey through music everyday, simple, universally human emotions, far removed from anything tragic or theatrical.”
By 1877, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was among the most celebrated composers in the world. He lived under a spotlight, which (not unlike today) generated lots of opinions. In this instance, he ignored them. Shaking off pressures from administrators, impresarios, and well-meaning busybodies, he simply wrote what he wanted.
This opera is one of those tales known by everyone in Tchaikovsky’s universe–a classic written in verse by Alexander Pushkin and first experienced as a serial novel between 1825 and 1832. Because the story deals with the internal struggles of ordinary people (which are admittedly difficult to show on stage), Tchaikovsky backed away from calling it an opera, instead calling it “lyrical scenes.”
Eugene Onegin is Tchaikovsky’s private rebellion against the theater scene as he knew it. Instead of bowing to the demands of directors and impresarios, he staged its first performance in an environment that he could control: the Moscow Conservatory. Now, 150 years later, opera directors worldwide are lining up to bring this inspired score to the stage. Here to shed some light upon its substance and its challenges is the show’s director [Carl W. Knobloch General & Artistic Director] Tomer Zvulun.
As a stage director, how do you show a character’s inner drama?
Well it’s very much a psychological piece; And I’m attracted to that. The pieces that I direct are usually psychological pieces offering an inner world that only music can convey. This is the fourth time I’ve directed [Eugene Onegin] in a year and a half. And I’ll direct it three more times next year. Every time I do it with a different cast, I discover so much because they can be so different. One guy sees Onegin as a jerk. Another guy tries to be thoughtful–you know, “I’m breaking up with you because I really don’t want you to wait for me, because I don’t know who I am.” As a director, it’s so interesting to mold this story depending upon the people you work with. You have to keep it open. You can’t decide the story means one thing, because it’s universal. It’s open to interpretation, which allows people to bring themselves to it.”
It’s hard to cheer for the title character, Eugene Onegin. As a director, do you think it’s important to be an advocate for his point of view?
Well, he is an enigma. He’s such a downer; it’s easy to depict him as a jerk. But the moment you write him off as a jerk, you can’t see his vulnerability and the character doesn’t have the same impact. He is a tormented character. One of the most challenging things about directing this opera is finding that three-dimensional character, because Onegin doesn’t have a full aria. You meet him very briefly, and then very early on you realize that he’s doing something seemingly heartless and cruel. But the challenge is to find the subtlety and the value of his action: He doesn’t want to get married if he’s not sure. And you know, some of us can appreciate that.
His breakup with Lensky is even more jarring. Onegin starts it; he agitates, and then kills his best friend. How do you go along with that?
But thee’s more to it than that. Onegin’s drunk–and I’m not trying to justify it–but I’ve seen a lot of people behaving badly when they’re insecure and when they’re drinking. He’s in a situation where he feels like everybody is talking about him. He’s not comfortable with the fact that Tatyana is there, he’s having too many drinks, and he’s making a mistake. And he tries to say, “Come on, man, I was just joking.” It’s Lensky who says, “No! You are an adulterer and you’re going to pay for it.” The next day, Onegin is late for the duel because he doesn’t want to go–but it’s too late. Social pressures are pushing him to make an even greater mistake.
The Letter Scene is one of the most talked about moments in opera. What gives it so much power?
I think this is Tchaikovsky’s finest hour. He poured his heart–all his frustration, all his hopes, all his dreams–into this music. It’s an iconic piece of literature.
I mean, the Russian people know Tatyana’s letter by heart, because it crystallizes what it is to be in love for the first time. It takes you into that intimate space where you’re reaching out to a person in the hope of being together, a moment of extreme vulnerability. Who can’t relate to that? Whether it’s in a letter or a text or meeting somebody in a bar or in school, most of us can relate to the inner drama of figuring out how to tell the other person your;e in love with them. That’s what Pushkin captured. Tchaikovsky, who was quintessentially romantic, wearing his heart on his sleeve, poured all these emotions into this music. It’s a masterpiece. When you find the right singer/actress to convey that vulnerability and fragility, then it’s gold.
Tchaikovsky credited a man named Konstantin Shilovsky as the librettist, but really, he mostly used Pushkin’s verses. Are the two works very different?
The essence of it is the same, but the tone is different. Pushkin was a gambler, a womanizer, he was always getting in trouble. Tchaikovsky was a gentler soul, a romantic, and closeted homosexual who saw the world through a lens of romance and sweetness. When i direct this piece, it’s very much about the text and going back to the Pushkin and getting a lot of clues from it. Pushkin was acerbic and sarcastic in a very Russian way. His version is full of bitterness. Tchaikovsky took that story and gave it a spin of sweet melancholy.
You mentioned Tchaikovsky’s sexuality. He wrote this piece while becoming entangled in a marriage to a dependent and unstable woman. Their union lasted a matter of days before he had a breakdown and would not see her again. Interestingly, he later remarked that he fell in love with Tatyana while writing Eugene Onegin. Do you think she was the character he had hoped for in his own marriage? Or was she the one he most identified with?
He’s way more Tatyana than Onegin! But I think he’s probably each of the characters in some ways. You know, he was just as tormented and indecisive as Onegin. He probably broke the hearts of a few women. You also see a great sympathy for the idea of friendship. There’s tremendous tenderness between Lensky and Onegin.
What happens between Lensky and Onegin is so senseless. As a director, how do you follow the logic of that relationship?
It’s life. Life is full of mistakes. Life doesn’t always have happy endings and we don’t always get to have closure. That’s what’s so amazing about this story: it’s a 19th century story with a protagonist who’s really an antihero. He’s an antagonist. And the story doesn’t even end with his death or her death, which would have offered some closure. Instead you have Onegin thinking, “Damn, you know? I should have been with her, but I’m not.” I mean, how many people ask themselves, “What would have happened if I wasn’t such a jerk?” That’s what makes Onegin so modern and powerful. It’s not just a fairy tale where they live happily ever after. The closure is the curse of our lives. Life goes on and sometimes we’re not in the existence we were hoping for when we were sixteen.
Learn more about Eugene Onegin here