A Pushkin fest

16 May 2012 § 2 Comments

Dostoevsky has had a bit of a back seat this week, although it’s hard to take in any Russian culture these days without him popping into my mind one way or another – and since man of the week has been Evgeny Onegin, there’s plenty to say. The reason for my foray into Pushkin was because I went to English Touring Opera‘s production of Onegin last night in Durham, and in a last minute fit of enthusiasm decided to buy the new Oneworld Classics edition, which has side-by-side Russian and English text.

It’s been quite interesting, taking my measures of Onegin simultaneously straight from Pushkin’s poem and from the opera, and also comparing ETO’s production to my massively heavyweight recording (Semyon Bychkov, and Krasnoyarsk’s own Dmitri Hvorostovsky). Tchaikovsky’s opera was first performed in 1879, so about a year before Dostoevsky’s great speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin statue in Moscow. Dostoevsky spoke about Pushkin not merely as a Russian writer, but as a giant of European literature, who, like Shakespeare, Cervantes or Schiller, who transcends national boundaries (unfortunately the near-impossibility of translating Pushkin’s sublimely elegant Russian into English means this giant is mostly invisible outside his native land). This was at the height of Dostoevsky’s messianic ideas about Russia’s destiny to bring a god-forsaken Europe to salvation, so the fact that he praises Pushkin for the innate Russianness of his characters isn’t such a contradiction:

Yes, the Russian’s destiny is incontestably all-European and universal. To become a genuine and all-round Russian means. perhaps (and this you should remember), to become brother of all men, a universal man, if you please. 

And so on… it’s all pretty silly, but the crowd went absolutely wild over Dostoevsky’s speech, so it puts into context the ideas that were floating around when Tchaikovsky wrote his opera. Dostoevsky places Tatyana at the centre of his thinking: he even says that Pushkin really should have named the poem after her. For him, Tatyana is the embodiment of perfect, pure Russian womanhood, but also of Russia herself, and Evgeny, corrupted by the values of Western Europe, is lost in his own land, a wanderer who fails to appreciate the true virtues of the Russian spirit. He claims that Tatyana would never have run off with Onegin even if she were free, because she knows that he doesn’t see her for what she truly is; he only sees the artificial, bejewelled creature and not the steadfast and pure Russian girl. For Dostoevsky, Onegin is a blade of grass, blown in the wind, but Tatyana is secure, rooted in her native soil. I don’t happen to agree with Dostoevsky here – he gets a bit silly when he’s not writing fiction.

Tchaikovsky, too, puts Tatyana at the centre of the opera; she is the focal point of the emotional drama, and surrounded by the songs of the peasant women, he anchors her firmly in the Russian countryside, and her wonderful letter-writing aria is the thematic highlight of the opera. Safe in the knowledge that his audience would all know their Pushkin intimately, Tchaikovsky was able to abbreviate the story, describing the work as “lyrical scenes”. In fact, the basics of the plot are all there, but the bits that are missed out mostly concern the development of Onegin’s character. The focus on Tatyana, the huge tunes and lavish orchestration set the music in a firmly romantic and nationalist vein, and it struck me listening to Hvorostovsky that Tchaikovksy’s was definitely an Onegin for the spirit of time.

What was really interesting about ETO’s production was that I think it looked beyond the 1870s, and back to the original poem – within the limits of Tchaikovsky’s score, of course. The small orchestra and fast tempi lightened the spirit, and brought us back to Pushkin’s irony; his whole poem is told with a decidedly raised eyebrow, and a tone of gentle, sympathetic mockery. The emphasis is on wasted youth that cannot be relived, the foolishness of missed opportunities and mistakes that cannot ever be rectified. A tarnished mirror cutting across the stage reflected the action through a glass, darkly, giving an impression of looking back at old photos, or fleeting memories, and Onegin’s everlasting regret at killing his friend was captured in a moment: Lensky’s body remained on stage at the beginning of the ball, before he quietly got up and walked off through the whirling dancers, watched by his distraught friend.

It was a pity, but probably necessary, that it had to be sung in English. Tchaikovsky retained much of Pushkin’s original verse in his libretto, and the short metre that works so well in an inflected language like Russian ends up sounding trite when forced into English. Also, when sung well, Russian sounds beautiful. Hearing it in English put me off to begin with, but it settled down and I enjoyed the performance greatly. I came away not overwrought with emotion, which is what I expected, but quite uplifted – I’d had a marvellous evening’s entertainment and Onegin got his comeuppance with style. I’m also grateful that the production prodded me into reading the Pushkin again – it was on my long mental to-do list. The side-by-side translation is great, because I can read it at a reasonable pace, and appreciate Pushkin’s lovely writing whilst still getting every word. I think Oneworld are bringing out a bilingual edition of Pushkin poetry soon, and they’re publishing a lot of other new translations of Russian classics, including some quite interesting and obscure stuff – look out for them.

I also wrote a straightforward review of ETO’s production for the Northern Echo.

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