Eugene Oneginopens next Friday, and this week has been a whirlwind of rehearsals, photo shoots and interviews! The end of this week will round-off with live radio and TV interviews. If you want to hear the cast and artistic staff of Eugene Onegin talk about the production, opera, and maybe even the Green Bay Packers, tune in:
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28
6:20 am: Tenor– and Green Bay native– Scott Ramsay (Lenski) is live on Wake Up Wisconsin! with host John Beard. Have your morning coffee while Scott and Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith spill the beans about Eugene Onegin. Well worth getting out of bed extra early! Turn the TV channel to WKOW ABC.
10:00 am: Keep your morning going with mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (Olga) and stage director Candace Evans. These talented ladies chat with “Outside the Box” host Mitch Henck about Eugene Onegin and life in the opera. Tune in radio station 1310AM.
12 noon: Soprano Maria Kanyova (Tatiana) joins host Norman Gilliland on WPR’s “The Midday.” Set your radio to 88.7FM.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29
6:40 am: Baritone Hyung Yun (Onegin) and soprano Maria Kanyova (Tatiana) will jump-start your weekend! Amy Carlson of The Morning Show Weekend Live hosts on NBC-15. Stay up extra late or get up a little earlier to hear the artists discuss love, life and Tchaikovsky.
Keep checking in with MadOpera blog for more insightful and entertaining musings on Pushkin, poetry, life, death, Tchaikovsky, the rehearsal process, the art of production and the production of art, and why our office staff needs bowl after bowl of chocolate candies.
The Madison Opera candy bowl, around which is often heard the phrase: “Wasn’t this full on Monday?”
Pushkin in Eugene Onegin Pushkin spent much of his adult life either in banishment or under house-arrest for his political views, which challenged the validity and competence of Russia’s Tsarist autocracy. Although the poet eventually reined in his polemic in trade for permission to publish (some of) his works, Eugene Onegin was, in many ways, a scathing commentary on Imperial Russia’s aristocracy and their social norms. As one Russian immigrant explained to me over a cup of tea last week: “The truth of Pushkin is in the verse, is in Onegin.”
The poem is told entirely through the viewpoint of a narrator, a thinly-veiled raisonneur of Pushkin himself. The Tatiana and Onegin of the poem are based on individuals from the poet’s life. Onegin is said to be fashioned after Pushkin’s friend Pyotr Chaadaev, and Tatiana after Chaadev’s friend Dunia Norova (both Chaadaev and Norova are mentioned in the original Russian verse). Lenski, the romantic young poet with lofty ideals, embodies many of Pushkin’s beliefs about truth, honesty and purity of art. Despite these real-life connections, Pushkin treats his characters with little sympathy: he despises Onegin for his cynicism, ridicules Lenski for his
naïveté, and bemoans Tatiana’s preoccupation with fictional romance. Pushkin explains their behavior as the inevitable fallout from being forced to abide by social conventions, which Pushkin viewed as stifling and destructive. Pushkin spent his early years in rebellion against the confines of his social sphere through copious consumption of booze, drugs and women. Yet he, too, eventually fell victim to the expectations of his society. For Pushkin, like Lenski, it proved fatal.
Lenski and the Duel
At Tatiana’s name-day celebration, Lenski and Onegin quarrel over Olga. Although Onegin is only teasing his friend and means no real harm, Lenski angrily challenges Onegin to a duel. A few days after the ball, the men gather at the appointed dueling space, Lenski with his second, Zaretski. In the poem’s duel scene, Pushkin describes the multiple breaches of social etiquette. The second in a duel has two responsibilities: to enforce the rules of dueling, and to try to prevent the duel from happening in the first place. Zaretski has three honorable opportunities to stop the duel without causing either Onegin or Lenski to lose face; he does not do so. Social convention does not allow for either Lenski or Onegin to withdraw from the duel of their own accord and, in the end, Onegin kills his friend.
Pushkin was intimately familiar with dueling rules that permitted everyone to walk away alive. Pushkin fought 29 duels in his life— generally as the offender rather than the offended— and 20 of those ended with an apology rather than bloodshed.
Pushkin and the Duel Like Lenski, Pushkin died in a duel over the woman he loved. His wife, Nathalia Goncharova, was much like Eugene Onegin‘s Olga: a beautiful, rather simple-minded young woman who enjoyed living in high society and had no interest in Pushkin’s poetry. Besides driving up Pushkin’s debt and saddling him with the expense of her two unmarried sisters, Nathalia regularly roused his jealousy by flirting with her many admirers (including the Tsar). Pushkin was embarrassed and saddened by his wife’s behavior, Nathalia’s rumored relationship with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès finally forced Pushkin to act. On November 4, 1836, Pushkin and several of his friends received a “certificate” nominating Pushkin “Coadjutor of the International Order of Cuckolds.” Pushkin immediately accused d’Anthès of the insult and challenged him to a duel.
And here is where art and life truly intersect.
Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès
Pushkin’s desire to fight d’Anthès may well have been inflamed by the fate he had written for Lenski in Eugene Onegin. In the poem, Pushkin’s narrator predicts that Lenski’s marriage to Olga would have resulted in a wasted life, in which Lenski ceased being a poet and instead became a gouty, cuckolded landowner. Pushkin’s literary output had declined significantly over the course of his marriage, and by the time of the fatal duel he was producing almost nothing. He spent most of his time managing his family’s land-holdings while his wife gallivanted all over St. Petersburg.
Even as Pushkin fumed over the prospect that he was careening toward a socially respectable middle age, he might well have considered another parallel between his life and Eugene Onegin. In the poem, Tatiana has a terrifying dream in which Lenski, attempting to defend her honor, duels with Onegin. The poet is killed. Whether or not Pushkin was affected by the possibility that he predicted the manner of his own death, he did not press the duel. He postponed it twice at his opponent’s request, and retracted his challenge altogether when d’Anthès proposed to one of Nathalia’s sisters (though Pushkin refused to attend the wedding or permit d’Anthès into his home). That might well have been the end of the story, save for d’Anthès continuing to pursue Nathalia in such a blatant fashion that Pushkin had no choice but to reissue his challenge. As in Eugene Onegin, social convention drove Pushkin’s behavior.
In the poem, there is a lapse of only a few days between Lenski’s challenge to Onegin and their dawn duel beside a picturesque mill. Nearly two months elapsed between Pushkin’s initial calling-out of d’Anthèd’Anthès. After Pushkin issued his challenge to d’Anthès, Nathalia made efforts to distance herself from the Frenchman despite his attempts to trap her into being alone with him. Afterward In the poem, Olga marries a soldier following an acceptable mourning period. Nathalia remarried six years after Pushkin died. In both cases, there is debate over whether these women loved their men. Scholars have argued for more than a century over Nathalia’s true feelings for her husband, one side blaming her vanity and selfishness for Pushkin’s death, the other conceding that she was vain but not so self-absorbed she couldn’t recognize Pushkin’s greatness. Whatever conclusions we might draw of her, it is worth noting that Nathalia preserved every letter Pushkin wrote to her during their tumultuous life together.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is filled with beautiful music, replete with complex musical motifs and well-defined character relationships (more on that later this week). But also of importance are the dances that pepper the opera. At first glance, the dances in Eugene Onegin appear deceptively decorative, a way for the composer to paint the backdrop of farming life in the Russian countryside or the lush social lives of the haut monde in St. Petersburg. While the dances do accentuate the locales of Eugene Onegin, they also have a cultural and narrative function.
Matryoshka dolls, a famous aspect of Russian culture
Cultural Identity Much of the higher culture of Imperial Russia was imported from France and Italy. In the 19th-century, Russia turned its focus to establishing and supporting a strong national identity, and composers like Tchaikovsky incorporated clearly identifiable aspects of Russian culture into their works. These elements helped connect all of Russia’s social spheres to the literary and theatrical arts of Imperial Russia’s cultural Golden Age. Tchaikovsky, who believed that Russian culture and Western culture could meld, employed both Russian and European dance traditions in most of his works.
Narrative Voice The dances in Eugene Onegin are particularly important because they mark a historic moment in which dance became a dramatic plot-point rather than a musical interlude. Pushkin’s novel was told entirely through the viewpoint of a narrator, and Tchaikovsky uses music and dance as a substitute for Pushkin’s narrative voice. Let’s take a look at some of the dances from Eugene Onegin and how they relate to the action.
The khorovod The first dance we see is a traditional Russian folk dance, the khorovod. It is a circle dance performed by the peasants at Madame Larina’s command. Culturally, the khorovod fulfilled the needs of many occasions: weddings, harvests, deaths, complete happiness or utter despair. Tchaikovsky uses it as foreshadowing. The peasants, who have just completed the harvest, are sprightly and joyous with the simple delight of a job well done. As they dance, though, they sing of a young but hopeful maiden about to encounter a stranger carrying a cudgel. The innocence of the dance meeting with the menace of the song parallels sweet Tatiana’s following encounter with the dangerous Onegin.
The waltz At Tatiana’s name-day celebration months after her rejection by Onegin, he has the poor taste to not only show up at her party and ask her for a dance, but the gall to abandon her in the middle of the dance floor. The waltz here is a “countrified” version of the ballroom dances performed at the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg and the palaces in France. The waltz is cultured but a little clumsy, reflecting the youthful Tatiana’s adult determination to remain civil to Onegin despite his mistreatment of her and his embarrassing behavior.
As the name-day scene continues and Onegin incites Lenski’s jealousy over Olga, note the presence of lively Russian dance characteristics such as circles, raised arms and quick foot movement, and contrast those with the sedate European influences of lowered arms, straight lines and elongated steps. The music brings both elements together, underscoring Onegin’s “devil may care” attitude and Lenski’s rising anger.
A version of the polonaise (by Kornelli Szlegel)
The polonaise There is some irony in the fact that the polonaise began life as a rustic Polish dance, quickly rising to the heights of popularity in the ritziest circles of European society. Russia once occupied one-third of Poland, and the nation’s composers were entranced with the polonaise. The dance came to signify royalty and uncommon destiny. It became a staple of Russian operas and ballets, and appeared in countless symphonic and chamber pieces. In this way, the polonaise has become connected with Russia.
In Eugene Onegin, the slightly rigid but nonetheless elegant polonaise is reflective of the now married and socially elevated Tatiana. The dance is constrained in its movements, yet each step and sweep hints at a wildness just waiting to break free. Married to a Prince and part of St. Petersburg’s Imperial society, Tatiana is much like the polonaise: she is poised, regal…but the passions of her youth still smolder within her. When the jaded Onegin is inflamed at the mere sight of her, the musical strains of the polonaise seem to underscore the question: Will they, or won’t they?
Our first dance rehearsal Stage director Candace Evans is also the choreographer for Eugene Onegin. This past Saturday, she brought together the production’s professional dancers, principle singers, and the Madison Opera chorus in their first all-cast dance rehearsal. Take a look at some of the highlights below, and be sure to get your tickets to see it all come together:
Madison Opera opens the 2011-2012 Season of Dreamers with Tchaikovsky’sEugene Onegin, our first Tchaikovsky piece and our first Russian-language opera. The composer is most well-known for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and, of course, the 1812 Overture which is performed at every public Fourth of July celebration in the United States. If you’re scratching your head as to how an overture celebrating a Russian victory over Napoleon has become a staple of American independence…well, that’s a topic for another blog.
Tchaikovsky is one of Russia’s most important musical luminaries. He produced his extensive body of work during the Russian Romantic period, a volatile era spanning the 18th and 19th centuries during which Russia forged a distinct cultural identity. Russian Romanticism reflects Imperial Russia’s captivation with longing, love, and the nature of the human spirit, themes expressed thoroughly in Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote an opera of passion and honesty, but he very nearly never wrote it at all.
Aleksandr Pushkin 1799-1837, seven years of which were spent writing Eugene Onegin
Eugene Onegin was first penned as a novel in verse by iconic poet, Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin is of even greater importance to Russia than Tchaikovsky. An old Soviet joke goes that the winning entry in a national Pushkin monument competition, judged by Stalin himself, was a statute of Stalin reading Pushkin. The moral of the story: above all else, the legend and stature of Pushkin would withstand government tyranny, social upheaval, and historical revision. Pushkin is to Russia as Shakespeare is to England, and more. During a period when most of upper-class Russia denounced their own language and culture as vulgar in favor of French words and attitudes, Pushkin wrote in Russian from a Russian perspective. For this reason, he is the undisputed father of Russian literature.
It is therefore completely understandable that after someone else suggested Tchaikovsky turn Pushkin’s poem into an opera, Tchaikovsky dismissed the idea as “quite preposterous.” How could an opera capture the subtle, witty, glittering narrative of the poem? More importantly, how could he dare to subject the greatest national literary treasure to operatic conventions?
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
After one sleepless night, Tchaikovsky found the answer. A prolific letter writer (5,347 letters survive to this day), Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest:
“How pleasant to avoid all the routine Pharaohs, Ethiopian princesses, poisonded [sic] cups and all the rest of these tales about automata. What poetry there is in Onegin! I am not blind to its faults. I fully realize that it gives little scope for treatment, and will be poor in stage effect, but the richness of the poetry, the humanity and simplicity of the subject, embodied in Pushkin´s inspired verse, will make up for whatever it lacks in other ways.” (1877)
Modest, along with most of Tchaikovsky’s circle of friends and peers, criticized him for his choice of topic and urged him not to take the risk of infuriating Russia by adapting Pushkin’s beloved verse to stage. While Tchaikovsky’s letters express his own anxieties about molding Pushkin’s masterpiece into opera, they also chronicle his love for the story and his belief that the public would embrace the work (after careful exposure and a suitable warming-up period, of course). In the end, Tchaikovsky was proven right and the opera Eugene Onegin was embraced throughout Russian society from the poorest rural villages to the magnificent court of Tsar Alexander III.
The magic of Eugene Onegin lies not in its theatricality, of which there is very little, or its tragedy, which even Tchaikovsky described as banal, but in its emotional verity. Eugene Onegin is a story about the everyday occurrences that make up a human life: our impulsive desires, our longing for love and our need for friendship, the choices we make and how we live with our regrets. Tchaikovsky spent a year laboriously, lovingly, and a little fearfully capturing the universal emotions of Pushkin’s characters, in the end creating a masterpiece of music and poetry that is unique in the operatic repertoire.
Over the next few weeks leading up to opening night, MadOpera will explore the lives of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the language of music and dance (yes, dance!) in Eugene Onegin, and our breath-taking production of the opera. Along the way, there will be brief photographic forays into Russian culture, courtesy of the UW Madison Russian Folk Orchestra and the Russian Educational Association, and a guest blogger will give you an intimate introduction to Eugene Onegin‘s famous Letter Scene. If you just cannot wait until the next post, have a look at our Eugene Onegin opera guide. It’s going to be a fun and informative few weeks, so be sure to get your tickets to Eugene Onegin before the excitement overwhelms you.