Stripped to its bones, the dynamic energizing 19th-century Italian operatic melodramas can be said to be drawn from one enduring myth: that of Romeo and Juliet, observed Italian writer Massimo Mila. In tragedies and melodramas, a hero and heroine (usually lovers) struggle with rivals or inimical forces that thwart their love until death separates them forever.
Not so in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse of the same name. Its protagonists are alive in the end, their love is never fulfilled, and the only villains or forces are those within themselves.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is tragic, whereas Pushkin recounts his story with detached irony. The genius of the novel is in the style of the telling, the triumph of the music is the way in which it stirs emotions. Selecting only the tragic narrative from Pushkin, the composer fulfilled his stated intention: “set to music everything in Onegin that demands music.” Nothing more. He transforms a larger than life portrait of an era into a personal tragedy of failed love.
This fall, LA Opera produces two operas drawn from great literature: Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, taken from Pushkin. It seems the right time to return to an enduring question. Must a composer be faithful to the original when setting an important work of literature to music, rendering both spirit and text? Or can the source be used solely as a point of departure for the composer’s muse?
Music and literature are not and cannot be the same thing. Musical notes and words evoke emotions through opposite means. Music, received through the senses, stimulates an emotional response which then can be analyzed in turn by the intellect. The written word, grasped initially by the intellect, can, if so intended, move us. The oft-repeated maxim is “Music starts where words stop.” Attempts to reduce music’s “meaning” to words are futile.
Most composers, while insisting on free adaptation, stay close to the source, altering it to fit their needs and those of their era. For example, most of Europe and Russia only knew Shakespeare through rough and often inaccurate translations and willful “rearrangements.” At worst, there are glaring examples of abuse (Rossini’s Otello has a happy ending). Every opera based on a literary source must reduce words, plot and length.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin has endeared itself to a large international public. He called it “lyrical scenes in three acts,” avoiding the word opera. He was profoundly aware that he was setting to music one of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, if not the greatest. Pushkin’s novel defined a new age. Onegin set the standard for, towered over and inspired the future of Russian literature. Tchaikovsky, cognizant he could only select a part of the work, approached his source with humility and reverence. He was criticized for fundamentally changing the nature of the work, diluting its cerebral irony in return for heightened sentiment. His defenders argued that the coherence and inner strength of the opera merits admiration rather than censure. He has, like most composers, followed his muse. He was more successful than most in creating an enduring and compelling work that justifies itself and needs no apology. He has spoken to us through music what Pushkin’s words had spoken to him.
Pushkin’s novel is an all-embracing view of Russian life and society, written with ironic distance from its characters. Cerebral, witty, satiric in turns, he never allows the reader to feel too deeply for its protagonists, nor weep or rejoice with them. The skeptic in him, and in Onegin himself, prevents this.
Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, identifies with his characters, first and foremost Tatiana. Pushkin speaks in the first person through verse as rich in editorial comment as in narrative. Tchaikovsky does not narrate from afar, but empathizes deeply with each of the richly drawn personalities. Tchaikovsky is primarily a Romantic who pours out his own heart through his music. His orchestra is not like Wagner’s, which is an omniscient universe surrounding the drama in time and space. It only “knows” the emotions at the moment they are expressed, singing, yearning and raging with its counterparts on stage.*
Unlike Tchaikovsky, Pushkin is only a Romantic in the sense that he reserves the right to improvise and wander out of the narrative when his fancy dictates. Otherwise, he is a Classicist, to which his disciplined use of form and poetic symmetry attest. For example, he created the Onegin Stanza, a unique rhyming scheme which unifies this extensive work. Tchaikovsky, conversely, was a Classicist when he wanted or needed to be, and his admiration of Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven and, above all, Mozart is evident throughout.
Onegin’s character is not one to evoke sympathy. Although he is Pushkin’s invention (and said to be Pushkin himself), he has literary predecessors in Lord Byron’s (1788-1824) Childe Harold and Manfred. Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s erstwhile lover, coined the term “Byronic Hero” to describe characters “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. A critical description of his peculiar type of hero includes:
Arrogant, cunning and able to adapt, cynical, disrespectful of rank and privilege, emotionally conflicted, bipolar, moody, having a distaste for social institutions and norms, intelligent and perceptive, jaded, world weary, mysterious, magnetic and charismatic, seductive and sexually attractive, self critical and introspective, self destructive, socially and sexually dominant, sophisticated and educated, treated as an exile, outsider, outcast or outlaw
This exhaustive list renders any further description of Onegin’s character superfluous. It is he. Clearly Tchaikovsky is attracted to him and his “type,” so much so that shortly after Onegin, he turned his gaze on Manfred, finishing a symphony that bears his name, in 1885.
The composer also identifies with Onegin’s best friend, the young, un-Byronic poet Lensky, betrothed to Olga, Tatiana’s sister. He dies in Act Two, having been shot to death in a duel (a premonition of Pushkin’s own death) by Onegin; not, however, before pouring out his (and Tchaikovsky’s) heart in an aria that has found its place in the pantheon of the tenor repertory. His relationship with his charismatic and fatally self-absorbed friend is complex, beautifully rendered in Pushkin’s words: “wave and stone, verse and prose, ice and flame.” Lensky’s youthful, ardent poetic character appeals deeply to the composer.
But it is Tatiana who has completely won the composer’s heart. He was so attracted to her that, no sooner had he sketched a scenario for the entire work, he immediately wrote the letter scene, in which Tatiana gives voice to her passion for Onegin, in a flash of fevered inspiration as intense as Tatiana herself. So perfect and inspired, this scene could stand by itself, and often does, on the concert stage. The daughter of a “pomeshchik” (landed estate owner), she became the most famous and beloved heroine of Russian literature. She could not express herself in Russian, Pushkin tells us (the famous letter was written in French, the lingua franca of the Russian aristocracy) yet she embodies the Russian soul.
Tatiana derives her heroic status from her metamorphosis. She begins life as shy, modest girl, who loves ardently if not wisely, defies convention by confessing that love in a letter, and resigns herself with dignity when humiliated. She becomes a sophisticated princess of high society, who defends duty and commitment, denying herself the very love she so craved.
So: no hero, no villain, except perhaps half of both in Onegin’s conflicted Byronic character. At the end, neither of the two principal characters dies, nor are they reconciled. Their tragedy is that they must live, albeit a diminished, loveless life. Tatiana renounced her great love when it was finally reciprocated. Onegin killed his best friend and ignored his chance for an authentic, enduring love. The tragedy is that of bad timing, unfortunate choices and missed opportunity. It is the tragedy of the passing of two ships in the night, not once, but twice.
*Note: By his own admission, Tchaikovsky was most comfortable writing abstract, instrumental music, in which there was neither an obligation to the word nor constraint to the extravagant emotional content of his music. His fourth symphony, a kindred spirit, was written virtually contemporaneously with Eugene Onegin. It shares the famous “fatum” or destiny motif.
James Conlon, the conductor of Eugene Onegin, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.