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The Man in the Margins

Many productions of Eugene Onegin make Tatiana the emotional center of the opera. As Deborah Warner's new staging bows this month at the Met, MARJORIE SANDOR examines the opera's elusive title character.

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Ilia Repin's 1899 watercolor of the duel between Lenski and Onegin
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Poet Aleksandr Pushkin
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The Met's first Onegin, Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca, in costume for Act III in 1920
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He's been called a cold dandy, a bored fop, even a "moral embryo." Dostoyevsky saw him as a forerunner of the "superfluous man" — an unhappy wanderer so allergic to mediocrity that he's lost all purpose in life. Tchaikovsky, rapturously rereading Pushkin's novel in verse for its operatic potential, found himself "terribly indignant" at the title character.

What are we to make of Onegin, that literary and musical phantom, so easy to sideline? After all, what kind of fellow rejects, then coolly lectures, the thoughtful girl who adores him? Who, in a spasm of social claustrophobia, flirts with his best friend's fiancée until the young poet feels obliged to challenge him to a fateful duel? It's no wonder we incline toward dreamy-eyed Tatiana. We'd all rather be that passionate young reader who stays up all night writing a love-letter, then grows up into a classy realist capable of saying no, though her heart is secretly breaking all over again. Tchaikovsky declared himself in love with her as he wrote her music. To Tatiana — and to Lenski, the young poet — he gave the warmest arias. 

Still, there's this other guy. He tells us almost nothing about himself, but he makes everything happen. Pushkin leaves him in media res, just as Tatiana's husband enters the room, spurs clanking. Tchaikovsky leaves him alone onstage, giving him the opera's last cry of despair: 

"What humiliation! What anguish! What a pitiful fate!"

Invited to sweep Onegin into the margin, we can't quite get his inky smudge out of our peripheral vision. Who is he, and what's he doing here? 

"I am not writing a novel, but a novel in verse — the devil of a difference — in the manner of Don Juan," wrote twenty-four-year-old Aleksandr Pushkin in November of 1823. Already you can hear in his voice the urge to confound literary convention and his readers' expectations. Within that novel's exquisitely worked poetic form lies what Pushkin himself called a "free romance"; he let his characters show him the way, without forcing a shape or plan on them ahead of time — for nearly eight years.

Does this improvisatory method account, in part, for the paradoxical, ever-revisable nature of his protagonists, particularly the one the narrator, a poet, sometimes calls "my Eugene?" In a letter dated December 11, 1824, Pushkin foresaw that Onegin, his "dangerous and sad pariah," was doomed to be misread. "Onegin is a neljudim for his country neighbors," he wrote, explaining that his character is not a misanthrope at all: a neljudim doesn't hate people; he's simply fleeing from them. 

Like the author, the narrator of Eugene Onegin, whom Nabokov would later call a "stylized Pushkin," delights in nuances and irony, describing his fictional pal so variously that the reader is caught in a sticky web, seduced into filling in the blanks, just as Tatiana tries to do when she first meets Onegin in her mother's garden. She imagines, in his quiet coolness, a romantic hero straight out of one of her beloved English novels. Much later, after he's left her rural neighborhood, she sneaks into his library and tries to discern his true character through his books, close-reading the "traces where fingernails had sharply pressed" to find the real Eugene.

…. What was he then? An imitation?
An empty phantom or a joke,
A Muscovite in Harold's cloak
Compendium of affectation,
A lexicon of words in vogue
Mere parody and just a rogue?

Lest we read this as a final — and objective — judgment on Onegin's character, our narrator makes it clear we're getting this analysis from a girl in a moment of crisis. Soon enough, she'll surrender to her mother's demand that she give up her romantic dreaming and marry "neatly," like her sister.

Pushkin also keeps Onegin's identity fluid by hinting that this whole narrative construction is an artifice concealing — and possibly compelled by — an unrequited love story of the narrator's own. We'll never hear it directly; it remains a phantom hint rising here and there in the narrative's margin:

… for sombre Russia's spaces,
where first I loved, where first I wept,
and where my buried heart is kept.

Such moments invite us to speculate: is "my Eugene" a doppelgänger of sorts for the poet — a sad and dangerous dreamer without a muse to steady him once the youthful fires of passion have gone to ash? In this reading, Eugene Onegin becomes an ironic — and tender — love song to the relationship between literature and life.

No matter what the reader takes from Pushkin's Onegin, it's hard not to feel its elegiac pressure: the narrator seems poised, along with his Eugene, on a bittersweet brink, that midpoint in life at which we no longer see ourselves as young and exuberantly looking ahead but are not quite ready to pack it in. 

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Alexei Stepanovich Stepanov's early-twentieth-century gouache of Larina's ball
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How ironic — like something out of Pushkin — that a work so dedicated to mocking literary conventions should acquire the status of a national monument. Over the next three decades, it became not only a beloved classic whose verses were quoted in the humblest kitchens but a source of inspiration for writers we associate with the great tradition of Russian literature — Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, among others. Through its virtuoso range of attitudes, from ironic to elegiac, it offered a tapestry so rich that in 1844, literary critic Vassily Belinsky called it "an encyclopedia of Russian life." 

It was a singer with the Bolshoi — Elizaveta Lavrovskaya — who, on May 25, 1877, suggested to Tchaikovsky that Eugene Onegin might make a good subject for an opera. Initially, he thought the suggestion "wild." But, as he wrote to his brother Modest, he found himself unable to forget the idea. "I rushed off to look for [a volume] of Pushkin, and finding one with difficulty, I went home, reread it enraptured, and spent an absolutely sleepless night, the result of which was the scenario of an enchanting opera on Pushkin's text." 

What inspired him wasn't Onegin but Tatiana. "I had come to sympathize with the figure of Tatiana," he later wrote to his friend Sergei Taneyev, "to such a degree that she began to seem alive to me, along with everything around her." At the time, Tchaikovsky was thirty-seven years old and had, earlier that month, received a Tatiana-like declaration of love from a former conservatory student, Antonina Milyukova. Was life imitating literature, or did the novel really — as he later insisted — influence his decision to respond, visit and propose to this young woman? According to biographer Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky's own recollections would blur the lines. As he later wrote to his friend Nicolai Kashkin, Antonina's passionate pleas "merged with the notion of Tatiana, while I myself, it seemed to me, had behaved incomparably worse than Onegin." 

One thing is certain: his proposal — and his brief attempt at marriage — created a decidedly unliterary nightmare for both. Apparently Tchaikovsky did not reveal — or Antonina failed to grasp — his sexual orientation. She seems to have misread his offer of "a quiet, calm love, rather the love of a brother."

By summer's end, Tchaikovsky had fled the marriage and set fiercely to work on Onegin

It appears, from his correspondence, that the creative process of composing Onegin was the most intense of his career. To Taneyev he wrote, "If the listener feels even the smallest part of what I experienced when I was composing this opera, I shall be utterly content to ask for nothing more." Later, to Kashkin, he described how, "yielding to an irresistible emotional need," he wrote the music for Tatiana's letter scene before he had a libretto. 

But as irresistible as he found the project, he also believed it was doomed to fail. "Pushkin's exquisite texture will be vulgarized if it is transferred to the stage, with its routine, its idiotic traditions, its veterans of the male and female sex." He even refused to call it an opera, describing it as "lyrical scenes in three acts, text after Pushkin," and insisted that the first performance be given by pupils of the Imperial Conservatory in Moscow. 

Reviews of early performances seemed to confirm those fears: G. A. Laroche, attending the March 1879 performance by the Conservatory students, chastised the composer for the libretto, which he felt constituted "an act of violence against the poetic work." The task of portraying Onegin, that problematic fellow, was called "antimusical." 

Over time, the opera took hold, first in the provinces and later in the great opera houses of Moscow and St. Petersburg. By the last years of Tchaikovsky's life, it had achieved its own status as a national treasure and brought him international fame. Gustav Mahler conducted it at Hamburg in 1892, then again in Vienna, France and Italy. It received its first performance at the Met in 1920, in Italian.

"I am looking for a drama which is intimate, yet powerful, based on the conflict of attitudes which I have myself experienced or witnessed, which touches me to the quick," Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev. That conflict, in all its nuanced variations, gleams and darkens in his Eugene Onegin. From the lighthearted Olga to that pure idealist Lenski, from vulnerable Tatiana to the world-weary — but ultimately chastened — Onegin, we learn its lexicon. The musical pinnacle of Tatiana's letter scene — which Tchaikovsky wrote so early in the process — occurs first in a purely joyous phrase of Lenski's Act I arioso. It acquires a melancholy shimmer in her letter scene and returns, with a brief upward swing of pompous authority by Onegin, when he visits her post-letter and gives her that devastating lecture.

The evocation of these characters' emotional lives is heightened by contrasting scenes of hectic, lively social life in country and city. And in Act III, no one is more abruptly cut off from his dreams than our "antimusical" Onegin. His belated awareness of his love for Tatiana rises in a restatement of the first "episode" of her letter scene. But that's all he gets: his arioso is brief, and it is quickly swamped by a lively Schottische

So yes, Tatiana glows at the musical center, and Lenski, whose own flame will burn too hot, is first to present the leitmotif that forms the pinnacle of her letter scene. Onegin — well, there's less of him to listen to. But without him, Tatiana remains a melancholy naïf and Lenski an untested idealist. As Isaiah Berlin once wrote of Onegin, "He is not a monster: his tormented self-disgust at the destruction he wilfully [sic] causes is both dramatically and musically fully expressed." In other words, without him, none of the characters would grow up, or grasp, if only for a moment, the consequences of their impulses. 

And there's something else: maybe this cipher makes possible the kind of "free romance" Pushkin first had in mind and stirs up the very trouble Tchaikovsky relished in his search for "stories in which the characters are real." The quest to make Onegin's motives understandable to a contemporary audience has no doubt spurred some of the most surprising directorial approaches throughout the opera's history. Of course there's been controversy — it seems part of Eugene Onegin's destiny, in all its forms. Every generation feels driven to revise, to scour the margins for a new interpretation. But from stark and wintry stagings to "doublings" of characters onstage, directors have played with Onegin's potential to create an elegiac, bittersweet narrative frame. Whether he's onstage throughout, helplessly watching his younger self make a mess of things, or brooding alone in an empty ballroom before the action begins, he seems to have something to say to us, even as he's engulfed by the rising waves of Tatiana's lovely early leitmotif, her youthful dreaming self forever connected to a simple shepherd's tune.

Or is it Tatiana's story after all? For Tchaikovsky, her letter-music came first. Musically speaking, all the characters' motifs of childhood dreaming, adolescent passion and adult regret carry us back to memories of her magnificent central scene. Was the composer taking his cue from Pushkin's narrator, who, in his final chapter, merges Tatiana's identity with the figure of his own Muse? 

But Onegin, dismissed, still lurks in the margins. "I see you're an eternal romantic," he says to Tatiana when he first meets her in her mother's garden. "I was once like that, too." 

She doesn't ask for his story but keeps walking, leaving him to follow, in a silence he'll never stop trying to fill. spacer 

MARJORIE SANDOR teaches creative writing and literature at Oregon State University. Her most recent book is The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction (2011).

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3