Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1833) is one of Russian literature’s most famous works. This “Novel in Verse” is an intriguing combination of poem and prose. Maybe that’s why Eugene Onegin has lent itself so well to interpretation through ballet and opera. Indeed, when Tchaikovsky was asked in 1877 to create an opera based on the novel, he wasn’t drawn to its plot, which he found cliché, but to its beautiful poetic style, which he translated into the “lyrical scenes” of his 1879 opera. The emotional sincerity of the opera has made it a regularly performed favourite.
Tchaikovsky’s music inspired Eugene Onegin’s most famous ballet adaptation. When John Cranko was choreographing dance pieces for Tchaikovsky’s opera version of the novel in 1952, he first came up with the idea of reworking the story for ballet. Since its premiere in 1965, Cranko’s Onegin has been a consistently popular ballet with audiences and dancers, who are drawn to its complex characterisation and the emotional symbolism of its choreography.
Interestingly for ballet lovers, Sergei Prokofiev also sought to adapt the novel when he composed incidental music for a 1936 theatrical version of Eugene Onegin. However, in the climate of Stalinist Soviet Union, which placed limitations on artistic freedom, this production was abandoned, only to be performed in complete form for the first time this year at Princeton University.
But what is Eugene Onegin actually about? The story is based on the doomed romance between Eugene Onegin, the title character, and the sweet country girl, Tatiana Larina. Onegin is a cynical dilettante, while Tatiana is his opposite: shy, naive and romantic. She believes in the beauty and romance she encounters in the books she reads, just like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, who is also enamoured by the fictional world, misguidedly using it as a model for real life. For Tatiana, however, the disillusionment with both the fictional and real world doesn’t end happily, but in the typical Russian mode – tragedy.
The thematic clash between Tatiana’s idealism and Onegin’s cynicism is one of the driving forces of Pushkin’s narrative, and is used to comment upon Russian society. Onegin often represents qualities which are critiqued through his comparison with the vulnerable and romantic Tatiana, such as vanity, artificiality and the lack of empathy in the rigid social conventions of wealthy Russian society. However, the novel is also part of a larger literary tradition of Romanticism, with the characterisation of Onegin being influenced by the celebrity of the Romantic poet Lord Byron.
Like many 19th-century novels, Eugene Onegin has proved to be popular material for film and television ever since it was first adapted on screen in the 1911 Russian film Yevgeni Onegin. But its most well-known film adaptation is the more recent 1999 version, directed by Martha Fiennes. When Ralph Fiennes acted the role of Onegin in his sister’s film adaptation of the novel, he did so in reverence to his character’s Byronic legacy. A self-confessed admirer of Lord Byron, Fiennes brings a lavishly brooding quality to Onegin on screen. He is often shot in dark bluish washes, as opposed to Tatiana, who is characterised by colour; she is often bathed in romantically pinkish tones, creating a striking visual dichotomy between the two.
Looking at the aesthetics of Fiennes’ film and the costumes in The Australian Ballet’s own current performances of Cranko’s Onegin, we get a real sense of the nature of the story’s characters through colour and imagery, adding another layer of interpretation to the novel’s adaptation in various media. Whether it’s through colour, symbolism, lyricism, characterisation, or emotional impact, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin continues to enchant.
Be enchanted in Sydney (move fast – ends next week!) and Melbourne as we dance Cranko’s magnificent adaptation of Onegin.