Three faces of Onegin: a plot summary

OneginAt the Palais Garnier in Paris from February 3 to March 5, 2014
Choreography by John Cranko (1967)
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (but not from his eponymous opera),
Orchestration by Karl-Heinz Stolze

The story is ageless: a young girl’s first love turns out to be a selfish and self-involved man who does not deserve to be loved by anyone at all. Onegin will realize the truth one day, too late for any possible happy end.

Critics at once deemed John Cranko’s decision to craft a danced version of this tale the equivalent of double-sacrilege. Alexander Puskin’s verse novel “Eugene Onegin,” (1831) is still venerated in Russia as the greatest exemplar of native language and style. Moreover, the great Tchaikovsky had adapted the tale into an opera in 1879. If at first the composer’s act of lèse-majesté made both Tolstoy and Turgenev sneer, his opera could now be considered the voice of a nation. Mutter or hum kuda, kuda, vi udalilis [Lensky’s cry of despair for golden days forever lost] upon landing, and the entire staff of the Novosibirsk airport will invite you out to dinner.

Given Pushkin’s gloriously insightful and disabused poem, Tchaikovsky’s deeply emotional lyricism…what more was left to say?

Ah, but John Cranko – South African by birth, English by dance training, and the person who make the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany world-renowned just before succumbing to  a heart attack in an airplane in 1973, age 46 – thought that translating these words and music into yet another medium could provide an incredible opportunity for his troupe of inventive dancer-actors to express themselves.

Denied permission to use any of the opera’s music, Cranko called upon the composer/orchestrator Kurt-Heinz Stolze to unearth all sorts of other lovely Tchaikovsky bits and pieces. In the process, they compiled a rich – and often less somber — score and a fully-rounded, sweeping, vocabulary of illustrative and inventive movement which both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, I am certain, would have relished.

So, one day in the early 19th century, in a cozy country estate somewhere in Russia during the Romantic Era, the story begins….

ACT ONE: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: in the garden of a country manor

Tatiana, reading yet another Romantic novel in French, does not want to be disturbed. She’s an odd creature, not at all into the normal girly-girly things other women care about, unlike her mom 1) Madame Larina (Monsieur Larin is dead) 2) Olga, Tatiana’s sister, joyous and bubbly and silly — therefore most often cast as a blonde – or 3) the family’s faithful un-named nounou/nursemaid/baba. Tatiana’s birthday party will take place tomorrow, and she seems the least interested of all of them about what she will wear. You, irritated by the overly emphatic and tinkly music of the first scene, might share Tatiana’s dreamy remove.

The village girls, totally excited by the idea of a party, burst onstage. Sewing done, and a bygone romantic herself, Mom rekindles the folk legend that when you look into a mirror, the other face you see in the background IS your soul-mate. Lensky, a landowner and promising poet engaged to Olga, really likes this idea.

Tatiana, looking into that mirror half-heartedly and annoyed by being pulled away from her book, is startled to see the reflection of a tall, dark, and most handsome stranger, Eugene Onegin, just arrived from ultra-sophisticated Saint Petersburg with his friend Lensky. He’s the man of her dreams, who has just stepped out of a book.

From the start, however, Onegin clearly disdains Tatiana’s taste in romantic novels and quickly realizes that country-folk can prove just as dull as those who inhabit the salons of the big city. He cannot be other than polite to this little teenager who has glommed onto him, but he is boredboredbored by everything, by all of them, by life itself, and especially by all these happy locals who seem to have taken dance lessons from Zorba the Greek.

Scene 2: in Tatiana’s bedroom

Unable to sleep, Tatiana – who has learned from novels that men truly in love are too sensitive to take the first step –makes the kind of mistake that changes your life. Instead of asking her nursemaid for earthy advice, she begins to write a passionate letter to the first man she is convinced will cherish and protect the offer of her inexperienced heart and soul.

This is the “letter scene.” In Pushkin, the Tatiana actually drops rich classical Russian and writes her letter in French: the refined language of novels, of yearned-for sophistication. In Tchaikovsky’s opera, a glorious alone-on-stage aria re-translated into Russian semaphores Tatiana’s recognition of a kindred soul in Onegin. In a ballet, how? 10 minutes of watching a girl scratching quill and ink on paper in 3/4 time? 10 minutes of mime to the opera’s text? No. If twee local color had begun to get under your skin for the past twenty minutes, this is the moment when you will go, “Ohhh!” In the 19th century, the feelings of a hopelessly naive Tatiana could only find decent expression in words. Now, in dance, through the magic of mirrors, movement itself will bare her complicated – fearful and ecstatic — feelings.
Think of all those expressions we use: “I’m head over heels,” “he swept me off my feet,” “I could jump for joy.” Those are just phrases, processed by the right brain. That’s why this version of the story matters: the left-side of the brain takes over. No words, no reason, dance connects us between earth and all that heaven allows. Dance makes us rediscover the experience of pure and raw nonverbal emotion.

INTERMISSION (20 minutes)

ACT TWO: (25 minutes)

Scene 1: at Tatiana’s birthday party inside the manor house the next day

Everyone dressed up, visitors from the big city, Tatiana’s big day: what could go wrong? Everything.
Onegin unwittingly makes an ass of himself, the way you can only do when you believe you are so way cool you have no idea that you are just yet another pointless snob. He needlessly hurts the feelings of the local gentry, makes a big show of playing solitaire because that’s more entertaining than dancing with them. Bad enough.

Then Onegin makes two massive mistakes that will change his life. Imagining that he is so important in that great big world out there, he decides to “save” Tatiana from her illusions. He tears up her letter, so indiscreet and so dumb! and places the shards in her hand for burning. (In the ur-text, Onegin believes he acts out of kindness, harder to render in gesture alone, but the result of his words and actions -Tatiana’s pain – remains the same). That was in private. Tatiana, shattered, cannot resist the urge to make a fool of herself in the middle of the dance floor.

One person notices, and is pained by what he sees [but you will only catch this if the dancer in the role creates a rich persona right away]. He is Prince Gremin, a distant cousin of both, who has long admired Tatiana from afar. You get the feeling that Madame Larina had imagined this whole party around just such a match-making scheme.

Then, to drive the point home that he could have any girl in the world and that he is boredboredbored, Onegin — his second massive mistake — starts flirting with Tatiana’s sister. Olga reacts to all the rumpus in her usual girlish no-nonsense way. She cannot understand why her fiancé Lensky takes umbrage to his best friend showering attention upon her: “ But everyone knows you and I will be married for sure so just let me dance in the spotlight tonight! My darling boy, at least you chose a girl other guys actually find hot! Right?”

Prince Gremin finds this all most distasteful. Lensky finds this beyond outrageous…

Scene 2: at dawn, in a park not far from the country house

Lensky dances an aria where he reaches out — in long arabesques and deep bends — in which he seeks to take himself back to that golden past, to the fullness of life, to the one woman, to all the poetic words, he loves so much…and bids farewell to them all. For he, furious the night before, had challenged his best friend to a duel (Pushkin will be killed in a duel, too, in the pointless pursuit of saving his wife’s honor. Thus the novel’s text/the operatic aria,/this dance, each carry forward the same deeply ironic echo).

The two sisters burst into the clearing and hurl themselves upon both Onegin and Lensky, desperate to make them see reason. Listen to how the sisters’ music keeps going around in circles and cannot advance to another key, another melody. This noise reinforces how none of them can find a way out of this horrible dilemma. Only Onegin, starting to catch on to how absurd all of this is, flinches. But Lensky, bound by chivalric ideals, refuses to back down. Too full of pride, for once Onegin’s aim is true…

INTERMISSION (20 minutes)

ACT THREE: (30 minutes)

Scene 1: a grand ball in a Saint Petersburg palace many years later

Tatiana has married Prince Gremin, and their mutual affection forms a strong bond which all those invited to this soirée fully admire. Watch how Gremin – so uxorious he will not even need a solo to a splendid aria as in the opera — enfolds Tatiana in his arms, placing her delicately into view. Sigh along with her as she yields to this unexpectedly comforting form of mature love. This kind of love, she’d not been prepared for — or been taught to want — by all those Romantic novels back then…
A glittering, contented, and self-assured woman has replaced the awkwardly naïve country-bred teenager in braids. No one is more impressed than a hesitant Onegin, just returned from many years of travel as a kind of self-imposed exile.
In the empty ballroom, Onegin hallucinates that all the women he has seduced but never loved have come back to taunt him. Could Tatiana save him from himself after all?

Scene 2: in Tatiana’s private rooms in the palace

This time it’s Onegin who has written the passionate love letter and Tatiana who doesn’t know how to deal with it. Fidgeting with pages that seem to  burn her palms, she begs her husband (heading off on state business) to stay with her. While touched as usual, tender and tactful,  Gremin chooses duty over passion like a normal husband.
This time Onegin is not a hologram bursting out of a mirror, but a flesh and blood man who literally crawls on his hands and knees in amorous agony.  Older, wiser – he’s grown a mustache at least –seeking absolution and transcendence, Onegin imagines that she must take him back and save him from those long dark nights of the soul. He begs for the kind of love he finally understands to be real and true, even if the passion it arouses risks destroying them both.

So, if you were Tatiana, what would you do?


3 Commentaires

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3 réponses à “Three faces of Onegin: a plot summary

  1. I would stay with my beloved husband !

    • Fenella

      I would too. The opera begins with such an ironic warning: as the sisters dream of love, the mother and the nurse reminisce about their marriages of convenience. To insist « Habit is sent us from above, in place of happiness, » I’ve always found too harsh. There IS happiness in all kinds of love. Arm-flinging passion, in the long run, gets truly exhauuuuuuusting 🙂 And any man who publicly states, sings, or dances « I love my wife » gets my vote!

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